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Published: January 31st 2009
"This blog is dedicated to Amy, Josh, John and my Nana. The first 3 were taken away in their prime the latter was in her prime for 99 years. Rest in Peace.”
We hit Chennai at 11.30pm feeling a little tired and very relieved after one of the bumpiest and scariest flights I’d been on in a while. We passed through 3 different thunderstorms that clearly lit the night sky and the plane!!!
The next morning we decided not to cycle into Chennai, but headed south towards Mamallapuram a tourist fishing town overlooking the Bay of Bengal. We put on our armor, sun cream and ear plugs as we set off!! We soon realized that Indian roads are best described in one word... “mayhem”. Truthfully the way out of Chennai was not as bad as we anticipated and we have come across a lot worst road conditions since.
However there are many obstacles on an Indian road and they are as followed: -
- Goats and sheep (usually terrorizing some village garden)
- Dogs (usually past Cruft's winners, we only saw the 2008 winner the other day)
- Cows (usually found sitting in the middle
of a highway, they are sacred so they can not be hurt or damaged, therefore causing most traffic to swerve around them and miss colliding into each other by millimeters!!)
- Pedestrians (they walk wherever they feel like it and ignore everything)
- Bicycles (some 70+ year old guy peddling a load the size of a house!!)
- Motorbikes (90% are driven by men with no brains, who see a gap and go for it, whether a 30 tonne truck is in the way or not!!!) Plus you need to remember that to look cool in India you need to wear a pair of shades and have a moustache,
- Cars & 4x4 (driven by a person who is only 25% sat on the drivers seat with 2-3 other people)
- Buses (2-3 a breast and the worst offenders of the road, regularly overtaking everything and each other. Usually when vehicles are coming the other way, because “might is right”!!
- Trucks (Overloaded, twisted axel, colourful painted, but not as bad as buses with silly overtaking maneuvers)
All you then need to add is the constant blaring of the horn, lots of dust, roads with big pot holes
and hot sunny days and you have the perfect picture, it is absolute pure bliss. However, we have to remember that the South is more relaxed that the north especially Kerala!!
Mamallupuram is a very nice costal town with a small temple and a large rock cluster like the rocks near Pately Bridge. This was a good place to watch the darkness approach over the Bay of Bengal to our east and the sun set over the Ghat Mountains to our west.
The next stop further south was the once French town of Pondicherry. The town is famous for its colonial buildings, the large Sri Aurobindo Ashram that has a large influence over the town and a big statue of Gandhi overlooking the sea. It was also very touristy with many westerners dressed in all white who were looking for the spiritual experience. It was here we came across our cheapest accommodation at 1 pound each!!!!
The further we headed south the worst the roads and the driving became!! However, thankfully we are still in one piece and have taken up the practice of most Indians. This is either praying to a Hindu God
if you are Hindu or doing the sign of the cross if you are Christian before you start your journey!!! Or the drivers highway code that is written on billboards around the state..."Pray and leave the rest to him..."
Chidambaram Temple was our next stop as we visited one of the busier sites in Tamil Nadu. The temple is dedicated to Shiva’s dancing state known as Nataraja and has 3 sections before you enter the main shrine. This is one of the few temples where tourists and non-Hindu are allowed into the main center temple.
As you walk in there are 4 large 50m gate houses on all the main points of the compass. Each gate has a large bottom and tiers upwards with the smallest section at the top, on each tier there are many different gods brightly painted.
The next section is the cleansing pool, where pilgrims and worshippers wash themselves before they pray and then you enter the main complex. It is always a good sign when you enter a temple and you hear the squeaking and scuttling of the local rats along the beams. We carried on whilst looking at our feet to make
sure nothing ran between them!
Inside the main complex there are sections dedicated to Shiva, Ganesh, Vishnu, Parvati and Nataraja. Truthfully all the other temples we have visited in the state of Tamil Nadu have been the same in their layer out.
Thanjaver Temple is also worth a mention with its beautiful 1000 year temple carved out of stone and is well worth a visit, even to see the 3rd largest Nandi Bull in India(The bull belongs to Shiva).
We received one of our daily question and answer sessions as we were mobbed by 2 lots of school children who wanted to practice their English on us. As I was bombarded with questions, one turned around to Carl and asked him a question. She then turned around to her friend and said that she was not going to talk to him, because she could not understand him and that he must be German or something!!!!!
We moved away from the coast and moved inland passing rice fields and crops. We had a few incidents with buses trying to ram us of the road and then some idiot decided to do a U-turn from the other direction
and ran into my front right pannier. He then looked at me as to say “you are in the way” to which I pushed my bike rightwards and caused him and his passenger to nearly fall of their motorcycle, whilst muttering something under my breathe!!!
The further we headed west the closer we got to the mountains and our backside were looking forward to it. Many of the tourist towns that are mentioned in the guidebooks are not anything special; they’re busy, noisy and usually only have 1 or 2 sites to look at. However the towns we stayed in that were not mentioned were a lot more interesting and you felt that you were seeing the real India.
The roads became more rolling and the Western Ghat’s grew in front of us. We had a fantastic climb up to 2200m to a small Indian tourist town called Kodaikannal. The scenery was stunning as we left the plateau and climbed up through the trees. It was just a shame that the last 3-4 hours was spent in the rain and the mist never really shifted until 2 days later when we were descending!!
Kodaikannel is set
against a lake with plantations on the mountain sides around it and its colonial influence. It is a highland retreat for the wealthy Indians to get away from the summer heat and sells a lot of chocolate (because it won’t melt).
The next route we wanted to take was through the mountains over to a town called Munnar. Unfortunately the road we wanted to take had been shut for the last 15 years, but was still printed on all the maps!! Indian style…
So we had to descend back down to 100m, down for 30 miles through lush forest and onto a large plateau. The next day I started with bad stomach problems and it could not have started on a better day as we climbed from 100m to 1400m, back down to 1000m, then up to 2000m before descending to Munnar at 1500m!!!! Now I know I am not the best climber in the world but I do like to give it my best shot and it felt like the longest day of my life and blooming hard work. I was glad when we got to Munnar, first because it was going dark and secondly we promised
ourselves a few days off.
Munnar is set in the middle of tea plantations, with towering peaks surrounding and rivers and streams flowing past you. If you are sat down reading this with a cup of ‘Tetley Tea’ there is a very good chance your leaves could have been grown and freshly picked here in the Western Ghats. Wherever we cycled the plantations were full of women (supposedly the best pickers because of their light fingers) dressed in colourful sari’s with large bags on their backs waving at us madly. Whilst we were there we visited the local Tata Tea Museum, local dam and waterfalls. The local town was nothing special, but we were lucky enough to get probably the best hotel room in India from one of the friendliest families in India.
We once again had glorious weather (average is between 28-32*C, clear blue skies and a fresh wind - magic) as we descended to Cochin following a beautiful river valley. As we neared Cochin we left the rolling hills behind and entered the lakes and backwaters of Kerala. All along this coast between Cochin and Kollam for about 100 miles you can travel along
the natural and man-made canals by boat. It seems to be the big tourist thing to do, but both I and Carl were put of when we saw the price!!!! Luckily the school we are now working at is on the backwaters.
We stayed at Fort Cochin, which is on a peninsular from the mainland and contains all the Old Portuguese colonial buildings and churches. We were lucky enough to find a good priced room, especially at the inflated time of Christmas, when many people are away at this time. We investigated the historical sites and the traditional Chinese fishing nets, whilst Carl became excited at the large shipping tankers coming in and out of the port. (There is story to this!!)
We welcomed Christmas by attending midnight mass at the Santa Cruz Basilica (the local Catholic Cathedral), which was an eventful 2 hours as the altar contained 6 priest’s (1 falling asleep) and the local bishop. We finally got to bed at 2am and spent Christmas day with the local Indian families walking along the beach and watching the local festivals and performances. Carl even treated me to a Christmas meal that broke the bank
at 1.75 each!! He then did proceed to moan that we could have had something at 40p each!!!
We left Cochin and headed south entering the official backwaters and canals of Kerala. The sun was shining bright directly in front of us as we passed coconut trees, elephants, monkeys and yellow dressed pilgrims. Our next stop was Allapuzhu, which is known as the Venice of India as it sits halfway between Cochin and Kollam and is the main starting point for the cruises. There is a lovely beach here that has gorgeous sunsets over the Arabian Sea and is a regularly haunt for local kite flyers. We abused the Indian Coffee House as we ate tomato omelette, vegetable byriani and coffee….
Our next stop is St Josephs International Academy, which is a school set up by an Indian man called Joe who grew up in the area of Kumbalam near Kollam and then lived in the USA for 40 years. He has then returned back to India to set up a school in his home village.
When we arrived there was another volunteer from the USA called Melanie, who was ready to break free
from the school as she had been here 2 months. We met the Year 10 students (equivalent to Year 11 in the UK), who had returned early from the Christmas holidays for extra revision. They have their ICSE’s (Indian GCSE’s) in March!!!
New Years Eve we were taken from one family house to another as we received bananas, cake and cup of tea, after cup of tea… Carl only wanted a coffee!! Then we went to another midnight mass for 2 hours to bring in the New Year. However this time it was in Malayalam and it felt a long process when all I wanted to do was sleep…
We have been given a few different jobs to do at the school, but our main concern is the 30 hostel children who are permanent boarders, the school has about 400 children.
Our routine at the moment is getting up at 6.45am the children get up at 5am to do some stretching before they do an hour of study before they watch the news for 30 minutes. (This is something Carl and I suggested to break up there time from blooming studying all the time). Then they
get a cup of tea before sports time with me at 7.15am until 8.30am which is then shower, breakfast and getting ready for school with Miss Sarah supervising them with my quiet voice!!!!
Meanwhile Carl is on bus duty from 7.15am until 9.15am, helping the small children get on and of the bus with their 10 tonne bags and stopping them from getting run over and squashed under the wheels as has previously happened… This is an eventful couple of hours for Carl as it is pure chaos...
School starts at 9.20am with an all inspiring assembly until 9.45am, which is when I start my Kindergarten English conversation classes … Yes I am giving them a good old Lancastrian accent!!! The hardest bit is that I find it really hard to tell the children of, especially when they only come to my knee caps!!! Throughout the rest of the day I do English with different classes and then in the afternoons I am trying to rein-state a P.E curriculum. The key sports are football, volleyball, basketball and badminton. No cricket is allowed as the MD (Joe) says it is an individual sport where people just stand and watch!!!!
This is India though!!!
Carl is usually working on the garden or fixing something in the hostel throughout the day before he becomes a football coach in the afternoon. The school finishes at 4pm and Carl is back on it with his bus duty for 2 hours and I am in charge of the hostel children. The children have an hour of homework until 5pm and then its sports or chores for an hour before they have a shower and then its back to study for them from 6.30pm until 8pm. They do 30 minutes of rosary before we have dinner at 8.30pm (to late!!) then they write their diaries before they go to bed at 9.30pm. Fun, fun, fun...
By the time bedtime comes, most of us sleep pretty hard…. (We are only supposed to work 6 hours, but end up averaging between 9 - 12 hours a day…)
Truthfully the children are fantastic and are real characters. Their English is fantastic due to a lot of the volunteers that they have come across and the fact that they are punished or fined for speaking Malayalam…
They have really taken to our accents
and have started using some of our key words such as
the dogs (Brad Pitt Irish accent)
and hey up”
The MD and Principal are bullies who pick on the children and certain members of staff. The Principal tried with me and Carl, but soon got the idea when Carl said “no” to everything he wanted doing… This is because he’d have us working permanently, which is ironic from a Principal that can not get to school until 10am and is the last person through the door. Carl has even stood at the entrance and waited for him to walk in, whilst looking at his watch and shaking his head!!!
The hardest thing to see is the physical punishment that is still going strong in India and most teachers have a cane!! However when a girl falls asleep whilst doing her homework or a boy does not know then answer to a question, I really don’t see it as severe enough to get the cane!!
We have already completed over one month and have got at least another at the school, that’s if we can last. The work
is fine, however its senior management that is not, so we stay clear of them and get on with our work and have a good laugh with the children and let them have a childhood.
The next blog will be on living in India and how to cope with the food, power cuts, staring people, trafficand our weekends away....
All the best for 2009 and hope everyone is well
Sarah & Carlos xx
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