Published: January 18th 2009January 18th 2009
As we arrived
Sunrise over the Ambassador
India is a vast country and one of the best ways to experience this is to take a train you can relax and watch the countryside speed or amble by and step out into a different landscape, culture and language at your destination.
The express train took 17 hours from Margao in Goa to Trivandrum in Kerala and arrived at 5,00 am It was dark when we arrived; we unloaded our bags and were sat on the platform getting our bearings when a railway porter from the train sold us a coffee for 5 rupees; we chatted and discovered he lived near Neyyardam, consequently he led us out of the station and loaded us into the back of one of the ubiquitous white Ambassador taxis, told the cabbie exactly where to drop us off and waved us on our way.
BGM founder Wilson's home is actually located within the grounds of the national park and sits opposite a large lake. We arrived in time to watch the sun come up over the lake from behind the distant Western Ghats (mountains) and couldn't believe the beauty of the location. There were unusual sounds coming from the jungle across the lake; “did you
Lake on our doorstep
View of the distant Western Ghats
hear the Lions?” asked Ani, Wilson's wife. Tigers may stalk the surrounding forest but strangely there are none in this wildlife park; but Lions Elephants, Crocodiles (thanks to Steve Irwin), Monkeys, Sloths and Deer are all there to be discovered.
The BGM office is 50 metres along the road from Wilson's house and and sits on one end of a 50' X 15' meeting hall the opposite end is shared between storage and a toilet/shower.
One half of the main space; the meeting hall itself, has tables and chairs and is used for meetings and the after school club, the other half, although nothing separates them, has a bed and is our accommodation while we are here.
There were 3 volunteers in residence when we arrived Trent and Kate from Melbourne and Yazna from Slovenia We helped out at the after school club on Tuesday (4 of us and 5 kids but a handful) sadly our Aussie friends left after a day (something we said?). We shared a cab into town with them so I could get my glasses fixed (again) and pick up some resources.
Wilson was away and didn't arrive until Wednesday afternoon but he soon put us
Ubiquitous local cab
to work in the evening at another after school club this time with about 24 children, it was like being back in Yangshuo having to think on our feet and wing it for an hour but we enjoyed the experience and immediately started planning our next session with them. The class was held in a building on a winding path 400 metres into the woods and kids just appeared out of nowhere it seemed. As we were leaving around 7.00 I noticed what I thought was a flock of crows in the evening sky going off to roost until I looked again at the way they flapped their wings and then at their wing shape and realised they were in fact bats, but bats the size of crows if not bigger; awesome! Sue said it was like being in a Dracula movie and we were both glad they were up there gorging themselves on insects and not innocent villagers and white skinned foreigners (sahibs).
Thursday morning at breakfast Wilson asked if we wanted to join him on a visit to a family who had asked for help. We went off with Yazna in a small van deep into the woods
Wilson listens to their plight
and rubber plantations where we found a man and his wife living in a shack made of palm leaves. The man explained (and Wilson translated) that his wife had recently had tumors removed from her stomach and was recovering at home but they were fetching water from a nearby stream which was unsafe and they had no toilet. The man earned very little by collecting rubber in the mornings and labouring in the afternoons but at least it was work.
Wilson decided there and then that the charity should fund a well for them to be built immediately (about £300) and follow ths with a latrine (about £250). In time he said they would also build them a better house with rendered breeze block walls and asbestos panelled roof (about £1300) When I asked how long they had lived there he said several years but their children had now moved away and the lady was also suffering from mental health problems. Their plight was discovered by a neighbour who directed us to their home, when the husband saw he had guests he went inside to bring out a solitary moulded plastic chair for someone to sit on; his hospitality was
Just a shack but home sweet home
both touching and tragic at the same time.
We spent Saturday morning at Kattakada the nearest large town a 5 rupee bus ride away from the bus stop at the bottom of the hill. Here we found the post office; fish and vegetable market and a small juice bar where we sat sipping fresh orange and pineapple juice people watching.
Saturday evening we went back to the larger after school group and wore ourselves out teaching them the Hokey Cokey.
You are truly in the countryside here and every time you see a river it has people washing clothes or bathing in it. People are very conservative so there is a great skill invvolved in bathing because it is achieved without exposing any bare flesh yet results in the bather being washed dried and dressed in clean dry saris or dhotis at the end. The lake in front of Wilson's house rarely has an empty shoreline (including Ani and the girls at times) and as well as clothing and themselves we have also seen people washing their animals in the same water.
On Monday we returned deep into to the countryside where we found that the well project had
Close by but far from adequate
started and the well digger and his assistant were hard at work. We were treated by the family as welcome guests and again chairs appeared, this time courtesy of their nieghbours. When we sat down they produced a tray of glasses of hot sweet black coffee with chicory; a large plate of tapioca (a local root similar to potato) bolied and served with a side dish of salt to dip in and a dish of sweet biscuits; how could we refuse?
Considering their facilities it took a lot of faith to eat and drink what was offered but we did and it was fine and we suffered no after effects. This was just another example of the generosity of local people confirming once again how those without give far more freely than those with.
This is a beautiful place and the wooded land is fruitful with tress laden with bananas, jack fruit and coconuts with pineapples growing in the bushes.
The hills are lined with groves of rubber trees and elderly cast iron mangles, used to flatten the raw material, are a common sight; as are rows of rectangular sheets of rubber drying on walls or in open sheds even
Sharing what little they have
in the road where traffic runs over it presumably to flatten it more.
Wilson and his organisation BGM (www.bgm.org.in) have had over 300 wells and latrines built locally with requests for help arriving daily. They also run over 200 womens self help groups who meet weekly to discuss problems, arrange self funded loans and share information. BGM supports them by providing organisers and donating chicks, goats and in some cases cows to help make them sustainably more self sufficient.
Wilson lives simply with his wife Ani and daughter Alpha and niece Lidja in half a dozen ground floor rooms 2 of which are given up for volunteers. He has invested through a mortgage and extended the property upwards to provide 5 bedrooms 2 bathrooms and a kitchen so that volunteers can be truly self sufficient.
In the meantime we have had to get used to living simply too, food whilst often tasty can alo be bland and repetitive and invariably includes rice.
Breakfast coffee (always with chicory) milky and sweet has become a highlight especially on the odd day that pancakes stuffed with sugar and coconut accompany it. More often we have a steamed rice flour and coconut mixture that
has a texture similar to breadcrumbs in which you mash up the little fat finger length bananas which is a novelty the first time then soon becomes just breakfast.
Lunch and dinner often share ingredients but are predominantly vegetable based sometimes with cubes of fish or pork, often accompanied with papads or chapatis. Make no mistake we eat well and are never hungry; it is just the transition from unlimited choice to none; from ice cold beers or cocktails to chicory flavoured coffee; from the privileged lifestyle to the simple.
We had the good news today that after only 6 days of digging they have found water and they will soon have a fully working well, they just need to add brickwork to the hoist and bucket and they are finished. Everyone is excited about the project and justly proud of their efforts until the next worthy cause when the process starts again from the beginning.
We will leave here on Monday on our way to our next volunteer post and we will be sad to leave. Sad to leave the children we have got to know, sad to leave Wilson Ani Yazna and the girls, sad to leave
Our local kids
the riksha (tuk tuk) drivers who have got to know us and sad to leave this beautiful part of the country where we have learned to travel by bus and even waggle our heads.
The power goes off every evening at 8.30 for 30 mins and we sit outside watching the stars or the full moon reflecting off the lake. The stunning beauty of the landscape is a facade, because when you pull aside that disguise you find human beings struggling to survive on meagre food; some without electricity, some without gas and even some without water.
If you would like to make a contribution be it a Euro or two or a whole well (or well hole!) please contact me and I will forward more details.
There are more photos below