Friday 1 February – Saturday 2 February
There is not really much to say about the 1st and 2nd of February except that we are all really sad to have come to the end of this fantastic experience. We have been back in Mangalore, definitely my favourite place in India. We flew to Mumbai to get our flight to Heathrow and have noticed the biggest slum I have ever seen directly beside the runway in Mumbai, covering three sides of the airport perimeter. We didn’t see anything like this in Karnataka. We can see kids playing cricket, houses stacked on top of each other, yet most of them have satellite dishes, and I’m wondering how they ever have any privacy or ever protect their belongings? As our flight is delayed by two hours, due to a technical fault, and we are more than likely to miss our connecting flight to Manchester, now that we have take full advantage of the British Airways hospitality, I suppose it would be a good time to sum up my month in Karnataka…..
I have been making notes throughout the month about the things that have surprised or intrigued me the most about India. I say India loosely as I am now well aware that South India is so different to North India. We have only discovered one very small part of India and maybe one day I can visit the North to find out the differences in culture. So, in no particular order, these are my thoughts:
Indian Standard Time
Even before I arrived in India, I had read about IST. It’s know as Indian Standard Time (Like GMT) but widely known as Indian Stretchable Time. The Indian’s themselves will admit that they have no real concept of time and if they say they will be there at 8am it will be 9am before they arrive. It gives the country a relaxed feel but it’s hard for us British to adapt. At home, I’m very punctual and always like to be early for appointments. By the end of the trip I have adapted and when somebody says ‘be ready for breakfast at 8am’, I take at least an extra 20 minutes to wash and dry my hair and put some make up on. Even then, in some homes I have time for a tour and a look at the photo albums before breakfast is served!
I have mentioned the traffic and driving skills a few times in the blog already and Emily has also added a whole post dedicated to the transport here. I don’t know what else to say except it has to be seen to be believed! I tried to take a few videos but even they don’t capture the bedlam of the road system. I can’t see any logic except ‘only the strong and brave survive’! At home we wait to get onto a roundabout. Here, we all pile onto the roundabout and then toot at each other to get off the roundabout. Our driver Nagaraj is great and the only time we have felt a bit worried was when we say other vehicles heading straight towards us on a bend. Although they drive on the same side of the road as us, I challenge any British person to drive here. Good luck! It will take a very brave person!
Before I went to India, I’m quite ashamed to admit that I was not really familiar with the various religions which I would come across. Between us, we stayed with Hindu, Muslim and Christian families during our month in Karnataka. We also visited various churches and Hindu and Jain temples. We could regularly hear the prayers and chanting coming from Muslim mosques. We commented on the final day that we couldn’t capture this sound to let others experience it. Anybody who has been to Turkey will to doubt be familiar with it. Having spent a month here, asking endless questions and watching the various different styles of worship, I can admit that although I have learned a lot, I will never fully understand these religions. They are complex and fascinating and having 30,000 Hindu idols is something I can’t get my head around. I don’t know how the Indian people get their head around this. What I did like was their passion and dedication. Their beliefs are admirable and I am almost feel that I am missing out by not having such beliefs. Personally, I am not religious. I have never been christened and I never plan to get married in a Church. The majority of my friends are the same. It’s very hard for Indian people to understand this. One woman actually told me that I had lost my faith and I need to learn to believe again. At the time I was quite upset by this. It is a surprise for people here to learn that the majority of people in the UK don’t go to Church every Sunday. One nice aspect of the religion here was that we all got involved in the Hindu style of worship. All of the Hindu families I stayed with had a pooja room, or at least a visible shine which they worship every day. In one home, the wife hit a very large symbol in the early morning and late at night while the husband carried out the candle lighting and praying rituals. When they asked me to join in, they were surprised that I knew what to do with the holy water and the candle. However, as I was almost at the end of the trip, it would have been impossible for me not to know what to do when they asked me to get involved ion their prayers.
I don’t think I will ever get used to seeing men being so affectionate to each other. During my time here, I have not seen any two Indian women holding hands or even being truly affectionate to each other (although I regularly hug the women). At least three times I day I have seen Indian men, from young boys to middle aged men holding hands as they walk down the beach, chat at a Rotary meeting or walk down a busy street. It is completely normal here and is by no means a sign of their sexuality. I picked up a copy of a weekly magazine here and read a sex survey which was quite revealing and openly states that homosexuality is still completely frowned upon in India. Yet, if we saw this kind of hand holding at home we would automatically assume that these people were gay. There is nothing at all wrong with this practice, yet it does seem so unfamiliar to us. Only in Ibiza have I seen anything similar! I asked one of my hosts about how common it was for young heterosexual couples to hold hands or show each other affection (I had seen it at the mall and was shocked) and he said that although youngsters were doing it, it was not readily accepted in India.
Being a minority
I had never expected that when I came to India that I would be classed as a minority. I think that I expected to be going to areas where they receive a lot of international tourists and are used to seeing white faces. However, on more than one occasion we were stared at, laughed at and asked for photos. To start with, we obliged, particularly for the under tens. However, when it was day 20 and grown adults were pointing at us and making us stand for photo after photo, it got to a point where we were fed up. Even in a temple, we were approached about five times to have photos taken. It made our visits less enjoyable but more than anything it made us realise that this is perhaps how minorities feel in our own country. In the UK we are becoming much more tolerant. However, in the North, particularly Cumbria, it is rare to see a face which is not White British. Although most people are accepting of another colour or race, a minority of uneducated people are still very racist.
Superficial things versus family values
Most of the hosts we have lived with had lovely homes, beautiful silks and a nice lifestyle. However, superficial things in India don’t seem to be so important. At home, people take credit to furnish their homes with beautiful furniture and go on nice holidays. Something we learned from the families here is that money should be saved for the future, even if it’s just a little each month. The most important things in life are health, education, family and happiness. I think all Westerners could learn a lesson from this.
Friendly and hospitable people
One of the first things that we were told when we arrived in Indi is that the ‘Guest is God’ and Indian people look after their guests well. I can’t dispute this fact and I can honestly say that I have never received such hospitality before. We were looked after, cared for, and more importantly, welcomed into the family and made to feel like an old friend. I only hope that the hosts in the UK can live up to this when they welcome the Indian GSE team. It wasn’t just in the home though as every person we came across welcomed us and showed a real interest in finding out about us. They happily answered our questions about culture, family and foo. They even made their food a little less spicy to help us along!
Importance of education
Parents and students alike place a lot of emphasis on the importance of education. In many cases, they are paying for private education as the Government run schools are not up to scratch. In every school or university we visited, the students seemed genuinely happy to be there, to be learning and to have opportunities opened up to them. We only stayed with middle class families but from what I could see, this was consistent across the classes. Even the children of the lower classes are now educated ad they have aspirations much higher than their parents. Sadly, I don’t think that education is rated so highly in the UK. Perhaps people take school education for granted as it is free here?
Without offending anybody in India, I have to mention manners and the frequency of spitting, burping and going to the toilet in the street. I have lost count of the number of men I have seen going to the toilet in the street. Sadly, I have to say that I also saw a small child squatting in the street in one town. Yes, we see this at home on occasion. But here, it’s as regular as saying hello! Weeing in the street is a huge problem here. In some places the authorities have started to paint idols on the pavements and walls to prevent people going to the toilet there. The real problem is a lack of public facilities. Even those which are available are unhygienic or you have to pay to use them. To us, it’s a small price. To an Indian working on the roadside selling tender coconut, it’s not always possible to pay to go the toilet. When it comes to manners……. At the airport, in shops, at the temple, in restaurants, people are burping, sniffing, snorting. Even when they see us looking at them with shock, they ignore it. People are constantly spitting, including women, yet nobody bats an eyelid!
Can anybody in the UK remember what life was like when they bought their first mobile phone? You had a loud ringtone and you were so pleased to have a phone that you answered it in very public places just so that people knew you had one. That was maybe 15 years ago. That is what life is like in India. At every Rotary meeting we have been at, people keep their phone turned on, it rings loudly, at least once an hour, and they answer it, no matter what they are doing. Many a time we have been presenting and people have sat in the audience, taking loudly on their phone. If their phone isn’t ringing, they are talking to whoever is sitting next to them, again loudly. To us sensible and polite Brits this is complete and utter rudeness. To Indian people this everyday life. Nobody is offended. In fact, nobody cares!
Extreme wealth to poverty
A lot of people said that we had not seen ‘real India’ because we were in a relatively wealthy part of the country. However, as with every place, there are rich people and there are poor people. It was quite shocking at times to see some of the poorer people, particularly the young girls begging near tourist attractions. At times it seemed like the Indian people are quite oblivious to the poverty in their area. However, I imagine that other parts of India see much worse poverty and we would have to travel further afield to see genuine poverty. When we landed in Mumbai on the way home, we thought we had seen poverty when we saw the slum which was right beside the perimeter fence. Then you see that almost every house has a satellite dish!
Loss of control
Talking amongst ourselves, we have all said that our biggest struggle is not having any control over time, food and schedule. All of us are independent people with full time jobs, mortgages and in some cases family. While we have really enjoyed this trip, it has been hard to answer to other people all of the time. They dictate our activities, they tell us when to take rest, when to each, how much to eat, what activities we will do. The downside of this is that I can’t seem to make my own decisions anymore. On the last day we had a menu put in front of us and I asked Devdas to order my food. I even accidently locked myself in my room and didn’t think I could make it out without help. Not sure how I’m going to cope living alone again!
Explaining our personal circumstances in India has been difficult. None of us, from the four team members, to the team leader, have a traditional set up with a husband and children. All of us are aged over 26 so to the Indians, this is strange. Ideally, we would all be married and have a child, or at least be planning a family. On more than one occasion people have tried to find me a husband, from their son to their cousin to their nephew who lives in London. They also can’t understand that I live alone. Ideally, I should live with my parents (who are divorced), my unmarried brother and also my married brother and his wife and two children. We would need a very big house! One of my hosts actually told me that under no circumstances would he ever ever let his unmarried daughter live alone, let alone 30 miles from the family home. I have to accept his opinion. Maybe one day he can come to the UK and see that I can manage fine alone, working full time, managing a house, bills and life alone.
Maids and help in the home
Many of families I lived with had a full time live in maid or at least one or two staff who visited daily to clean for them. One woman was amazed to learn that my brother and his wife both work full time, have two children and no maid! ‘How do they cope?’ ‘How do they look after their children?’ ‘How do they find the time to cook and clean?’ I was actually quite shocked by this. At home, couples know what they are taking on when they have a family. They know it will be expensive and they know they have to work. They are grateful for support from their extended family. We couldn’t contemplate having staff, not least because we couldn’t afford it! In India, they can’t imagine life without staff. Yes, the women here work hard looking after their family and preparing meals from scratch. But I challenge them to work full time and then come home to cook and clean and pay bills (And that isn’t even taking into account looking after the children!).
Treatment of women
One thing which I found quite hard to witness was the treatment of some women. In India, it is completely normal for wives to run around after their husbands, eat their meals after the rest of the family, and serve food to everybody, even if they are quite capable of helping themselves. In the factories, many en supervised groups of women who were doing hard annual labour. One person actually told us that women were not capable of being supervisors! At home, women are taught to be quite independent, and more and more men now help around the home too, cooking, cleaning, parental responsibilities. Both systems have their pros and cons I’m sure, but I personally prefer ours!
Overall, we have been very lucky to have been chosen to be part of this GSE team. People would give anything to have the opportunity and see the things that we have seen. Devdas said that we have seen more in one month than he has seen in his lifetime. It is an experience we will remember forever.
Devdas, Rekah, Ramkrishna and Nagaraj all waved us away from Managlore airport and both me and Nicola later admitted that we were crying. Nicola because she would miss her hosts Devdas and Rekah and me because I really want to stay. Devdas did say that he would turn a blind eye if I didn’t want to get on the plane. He also said I was more than welcome to stay at his house but I’m sure he would live to regret that!
You can probably tell from the tone of the final blog that I really don’t want to leave. Although I have missed everybody at home, I could easily stay another month or two. Although, I’d like to maybe use some of my vocational skills out here and work with organisations to help them deliver their communications or Corporate Social Responsibility projects. The GSE trip has been a great experience but it’s time to start doing some work before I forget how to!
Rajendra and Janhavi have already phoned me and Nicola to ask us to come back to Belur or to visit their apartment in Bangalore, a place we haven’t been. Other fiends we have made have also asked us to comeback and it’s clear that they are 100% genuine and can’t wait to see us all again. The nice thing is that all four of us have had a very individual experience because we lived with different families. We will never run out of things to talk about and we will all stay in touch too. So if I’m not e-mailing or texting the girls, I will be e-mailing, whatsapping or hopefully visiting my friends in India.
Although I was nervous before I came, for many different reasons, I can say that I have had the best time ever and I am so grateful for this experience. If we had visited Karnataka and stayed in hotels it would have been a nice holiday but living with Rotarians and their families has made this experience extra special for every one of us. Yes, it was challenging but it has been worth it, both personally and professionally.
You can expect to see me in India again very very soon! (Maybe not in the monsoon!)
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