DiA’s India Volunteer Coordinator, Joe Bird, reflects on a summer of content, as he shares his experiences working in India in this blog post. His account includes trips to Udaipur, Pune and Pondicherry, where he visited DiA’s summer volunteers – all of whom have recently completed successful placements at their respective organisations.
Somewhat tender following a late night, I found my bus to Udaipur. Smiling apologetically to the gentleman I’d be sitting next to for the next seventeen hours, I squeezed past him, settled into my seat and adopted my favoured position, gazing out of the window, plugging into my iPod and retreating into myself. Travelling through India often provides great insight into the country itself. Giving you stunning views, unique, albeit brief, insights into the existences of the people in rural areas and interesting encounters with fellow passengers. That said, with aching bones and sleep evading me at 3am in the morning, my neighbours hand resting gently on my upper thigh, his head on my shoulder and with the gentleman behind me leaning across my body to hock up to filth in his lungs and project it out of the window into the sleepy Indian countryside. I didn’t feel all that enriched and was delighted to arrive in Udaipur.
Developments in Action’s partners in Udaipur are Seva Mandir, where we have currently placed Jonny and Andy and so having recovered from the bus journey I made my way to catch up with them. Just 15 days after seeing them off on their train to Mumbai it felt like a lot had changed. It was great to see them so happy and at ease in their placement and having heard so much about Seva Mandir from previous DiA volunteers it was fascinating to experience it first-hand. Unfortunately, as is the Indian way, our field trips to conduct research in the village of Dhar were cancelled. Yet using our new found ability to react to these last minute changes and deep seated appreciation for cricket we were able to while away the afternoon discussing the placement in front of the first day of the second test between India and England, our conversations only (though a little too regularly) interrupted by an Indian cheer as another English wicket was surrendered.
As well as being home to Seva, Udaipur is very en vogue with visitors to India, branded by many as ‘the most romantic city in India’ – perfect for a 26yr old bloke travelling alone. Undeterred by the re-emergence of what had become my catchphrase prior to the volunteers arrival in India – ‘table for one please’ (which usually elicited the response ‘Just one’…’yes, just one’) I was able to fit in a bit of sightseeing. Stuffed into a ‘tourist vehicle’ filled with loving couple I ascended the hillside to the monsoon palace to enjoy a sunset and marvel at the birds effortless gliding up thermals against a stunning backdrop of rolling hills and a blood red sky. Aboard a boat to the Lake Palace I politely answered rather personal questions from a group of Thai ladies as they occasionally succumbed to giggling fits that belied their (middle) age. Later, surrounded by middle aged western couples I had a waiter light me a candle at a table for one as I overlooked the fairytale ‘Lake Palace’ ablaze with lights.
Having been in Udaipur 4 years ago, the words of Nelson Mandela came to mind, ‘there is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered’, and I did feel markedly different. Having spent over 8 months in the country since then I felt at ease in the Indian culture; open to the people, the culture and the wealth of possibilities with which each day is so full. Though I cannot pretend to yet understand the plethora of cultural and social nuances of this vast, complex country, I am at least able to empathise with and even enjoy them. I happily whiled away a few hours strolling through the ram shackled streets that dexterously wound their way through the many temples and shops of the old town, sat and watched the locals doing their washing in Lake Pichola. The old fashioned romance of Udaipur felt a very definite (and appreciated) move away from the hustle and bustle of big city living.
On my last day I rose before sunrise and made my way down toward the lake where I had scoped out a spot popular with locals for its fantastic views and more practically the steps down to the lake allowing them to wash their clothes and bathe. With Udaipur softly sleeping I watched the sunrise, content in my tranquil isolation, feeling I was privy to a sunrise shared with me, and me alone. I was wrong. As I cast my gaze toward the old city I saw three head’s bobbing their way towards me. Soon 3 old men with a cumulative age comfortably over 200 were rising from the water in a way essentially not dissimilar to Daniel Craig in ‘Casino Royal’, though ultimately, completely different. These speedo clad gents climbed the steps in a graceful, effortless manner belying their age and joined me. Enjoying the first rays of sunlight playing across the rippling lake they spoke of their daily swims at 5:30 am and pm, waxing lyrical about the lives they led and seeking to understand how they contrasted with my own. It was a beautiful sunrise. The guidebooks were right; Udaipur is romantic.
Leaving behind the placid lakes, stunning vistas and tight, tight speedo’s I boarded my overnight bus to Pune. Squeezing into my ‘sleeper’ compartment, no larger than a coffin and considerably less well decked out I steeled myself for a long journey. Being at the very back of the bus I was right above the back wheel and was such, each bump (and there were a few) would send me careering upwards, my face smacking against the top of my compartment (read coffin) and hurtling back down to the unforgiving floor. It is quite possible that of the 16, sleepless hours I spent aboard this bus I was airborne for a good 20 minutes. Arriving early the next morning I gratefully slunk off into a rickshaw as the morning sun rose above Pune.
A little while later that day as the sun rose to the peak the bedraggled nature of my appearance was exposed for all to see. Having slept for several hours I decided to get my first Indian haircut of the trip. After a full five minutes negotiating the extent of my trim, with the hairdresser using pitch to describe the extent of the cut (we ended, agreeing on a falsettoed ‘triiiiiiiim’) I sat down and enjoyed the theatre that is the Indian haircut.
Some thirty minutes later, head washed, oiled and somewhat pummelled I thought I was done. As I dusted myself off, the hairdresser looked at me, ‘shave’, ‘no thank you’ I replied. ‘Massage?’. With little else planned for the day and somewhat disarmed by the friendly smile of the hairdresser, who up until that moment hadn’t conveyed any emotion whatsoever, I acquiesced. and I was soon enjoying the usual head banging, ear tweaking and eye poking I so fondly remembered from my previous time in India (more with amusement than actual pleasure). Ten minutes in and my friend (who had once more resumed his stony faced, thousand yard stare) was rummaging around in a draw. Eleven minutes, and he had a strange contraption strapped to his hand. One flick of the switch later and his entire hand was vibrating. Somewhat intrigued and wholly intimidated by the sight and sound of this contraption I soon found his finger, now vibrating at a great frequency making its way toward my ear. Around my ear. Inside my ear. I felt uncomfortable, I felt violated. As is the English way, in my extreme discomfort I ignored the problem, smiling benevolently and this po faced gentleman who appeared to have forgotten he had his finger inside me and become completely absorbed in a Hindi soap on the television in the corner of the room. I wiggled my head, gently reminding him of my existence, steeling myself for ear finger number two.
Having gradually eased myself back into society following the violation of my ears I was happy to help Deep Griha (DiA’s partner organisation in Pune) with preparation for their second annual ‘Matrimonial Event for People Living with HIV’. Held on a Sunday, the event brought almost 200 people with HIV across 5 states together to meet one another, with the view to some of them getting married. The event was hugely successful, emotional and personally, overwhelming.
With echoes of the first day of school, the candidates arrived at the hall with their parents in tow. Being ushered in, they nervously waved goodbye to their families, seeking refuge in same sex groups, the men only breaking from their furtive whispering to crane their necks, straining for a view of new additions to the females group.
The morning saw some traditional Indian matrimonial games mixed in with more westernised ‘speed dating’, whilst the afternoon consisted of negotiations between families around potential couplings. By the end of the day 13 couples had formed and everyone who attended had left in buoyant mood, having enjoyed the opportunity to meet people with which they shared so much and with whom they could be themselves entirely, unafraid of the stigma and persecution they are so often exposed to in so much of society.
A short trip to visit the Pondicherry volunteers later and I was on my first (and long awaited) week off, headed on another overnight bus through the humid Indian night toward Ooty. Arriving a few days before Independence Day, Ooty was under siege from Indian couples holding hands and rowdy groups of young, male Indian revellers (also holding hands). Spending much of the next few days confined to my guesthouse, held captive by the rain, I enjoyed wearing jumpers, sleeping under duvets, reading Emily Bronte and watching the start of the football season. On rare forays further afield I managed a short trek and made my way to the top of ‘Dodda Petta Peak’ where I was promised spectacular views. Arriving at the top I was disappointed to find myself shrouded in fog, then mist, then gentle rain, gradually building in intensity until a tumultuous shower engulfed me. Evidently the several hundred Indians I shared this ‘tranquil’ view with felt the same frustrations with the weather and took to entertaining themselves with songs, screams of laughter and dancing. In the end, though unconventional, the view was pretty memorable.
Coming down from Ooty I took the ‘Nilgiri Passenger Train’. A spectacular trip on a steam train ride rolling gently down the ghats, slowly eating up the 26 miles between Ooty and Mettupalayam, surrounded by walls of rainforest flora and fauna, passing small stations where station masters and monkeys traded contemptuous looks with one another.
One less spectacular though mercifully speedier journey on from Mettupalayam and I was in Madurai. Madurai is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and home to the spectacular Meenakshi Amman Temple. The temple was a mass of statue, worship, song and devotion. Sitting and strolling around the complex labyrinth of halls and corridors I spent hours lost in the overwhelming sights, sounds and smells, only leaving at the end of the day to see the sunset over the temple from my hotel rooftop where I enjoyed an elicit beer smuggled in by an entrepreneurial hotel employee. I stood alone on top of the world (or at least 7 floors above it), kingfisher in hand, taking in the religious chanting emanating from the temple glowing golden in the sunset and I smiled.