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 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!”

Reconnecting with Nature at The Tamara Coorg

A sharp crack fills the air as if the sky is being rendered in two. A deep rolling boom follows and water starts trickling through the trees to fall on the balcony suspended above the coffee plantation.
We are in a little slice of heaven, a retreat from the chaotic madness of the Indian cities, set high on a tree-clad hillside in a 176 acre coffee estate, far from the teeming crowds, the constant honking, the diesel fumes, the dust filled air.
My wooden cottage juts out from the hillside, on stilts 20-30 feet above the coffee plants below. The French windows open wide, the fragrance from the acres of white coffee blossoms below filling the room. Honey Bees pausing from their work of pollination fly into the room , take a couple of laps, before heading back outside into the soft rain now percolating through the shade giving silver oaks, jackfruit and rosewood trees towering above.
It’s our anniversary, and to compensate The Boss for another year tolerating my foibles, my idiosyncrasies, my moods, I have taken her away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the drudgery of the daily routine, and we have come here to The Tamara Coorg.

We left Bangalore early yesterday morning in an effort to beat the traffic but it seemed like everyone had the same idea, the roads filled with cars, each crammed with extended family members, brothers, sisters, their wives and husbands, and children sitting on laps or standing in the passenger foot well clinging on to the dash-board.
As is usual in India the drivers dispensing with all safety considerations, instead focusing on beating the car in front, a subconscious urge to arrive first overriding any thoughts of self-preservation or protection of loved ones.
Seven hair-raising, butt clenching hours later we turned off the main road for a 4 km drive up a single lane concrete road winding up into the hills. We wound down the windows and turned off the a/c to allow the fresh air and bird song into the car.

Greeted with garlands of jasmine and glasses of cold coffee we were then, formalities over, transported further up the hillside by electric buggy to our room.

The Tamara Cottages

Each cottage is built from imported Canadian pine and stands high on stilts reminding me of my childhood in New Zealand where ‘Pole Houses‘ are common given the hilly terrain. Not a tree was cut down to build each cottage and every effort has been made to retain if not improve upon what was there before construction. This is refreshing in India where the calls of commerce usually override any concerns for the environment.

After freshening up we walked 500 meters up the hill-side to the open air restaurant called The Falls, for lunch where a lovely buffet was served. The sky opened up and rain poured from the heavens, the smell of the wet jungle wafting through the dining hall.

Retiring to our room we sat, stomachs full, and looked out over the lush green hills, listening to the rain and the distant rumbles of thunder. Reveling in the tranquility, the peace, the satisfaction, that only being in a natural environment can bring. Thoughts of the city far away, our eyelids grew heavy with sleep, as we relaxed and breathed in the pure air, gazing out on the now mist shrouded hills that form the landscape of Coorg.
As evening approached the temperature dropped and the rain eased off, the sound of falling water replaced by birdsong, the shrieks of Mynahs, the pu-cock call of the Barbet, and the musical warble of the wrens and tits flittering from tree to tree.

We headed back up to the restaurant for dinner where a candle-lit corner table awaited us, specially decorated in honor of our anniversary. A chance remark to the executive chef at lunch time regarding Coorgi food, resulted in a dish of Pandi (Pork) Curry with Akki Rotis (rice bread), a dish this region is famous for, made especially for us. What followed was a lovely meal, accompanied by the sounds of crickets in the trees nearby and the twinkling lights of fire flies, like little fairy lights in the foliage above.

Returning to our room after dinner we found another surprise. Housekeeping in our absence had decorated our bed with flowers in the shape of a heart.

Rising before dawn the next morning we hiked high into the hills, accompanied by the resort guide, a local man with an encyclopedic knowledge of birds and their calls. Climbing high into the hills, the sounds of civilization soon replaced with the staccato hammering of woodpeckers, and the strangely human tune of the Malabar whistling thrush. Flattened bamboo and piles of dung marked the path of the wild elephants that had passed through before us, and our guide stopped frequently to show footprints of deer and other wild animals.

Cresting the final ridgeline we halted in our tracks, stunned by the view that opened up before us. Jungle clad hills and valleys still shrouded in morning mist and clouds stretched out before us as we gazed awestruck at the beauty before us. Unusually for India not a sound or sign of human habitation reached us as we sat perched high on the hillside, cool breezes wafting over us, birds of prey hurtling past us in a break neck dive into the valley below.

Coorg Landscape

In a grassy patch just above the tree line on the hillside below us a movement caught our eye. Looking closer we spied three Sambar deer, heads swiveling in our direction, ears erect, as our excited whispers somehow reached them. Watching as they moved gracefully across the hillside and back into the jungle we said an inward prayer of thanks to the universe for allowing us to reconnect with the natural wonder of our beautiful planet. A connection that sadly we have lost in our so-called civilized city lives.

Coorg Jungle