Monthly Archives: July 2015

Just another day at school in India…

Doing things the Indian way caught me totally off guard and unprepared today and I have to confess to the use of some very choice words this morning to vent my disbelief at Indian proceedings..

A former president of India passed away last night and a seven-day mourning period was announced, starting today.   So all schools following the CBSE curriculum were closed for business, a National Day of Mourning…   that is all schools apart from mine!!  This would not normally have posed too much of a problem as I would have had all my lessons ready and my resources to hand.  But this week is not  an ordinary week: Youth Festival is looming.  In our school this entails three days of children doing little shows, songs and recitals whilst the majority of the school sits for hours on end watching.  Whereas the actual festival was not to start until tomorrow, today was set aside as a whole day of rehearsal, because the teachers declared the children were in dire need of additional time to practise their performances.  And Principal, being the good woman, had wholeheartedly agreed to dedicate Tuesday to further perfecting of the programme.

Unfortunately the Principal’s generosity did not stretch to granting me a day off (I did try…), although I am not at all involved in any of the preparations.  So I came to school armed to the teeth for today’s non-event:  iPad and keyboard to indulge in a bit of writing, memory stick  to print off my holiday itinerary for September and my reading book which was just getting to the interesting part.  I was all set for a day of stress-free entertainment on the school premises and left my folders, books, board pens or ‘anything remotely useful in a classroom’ at home.

It was soon clear that the day was not going to follow the expected course. Teachers and students trickled into school at snail’s pace once the news had spread that it was business as usual, rather than a day off mourning.  Academic Director and Principal had a quick powwow and hastily convened a whole school assembly to mark the sombre occasion.  The late ex-president’s picture was hauled from the library wall, given a cursory dusting by ‘Odd-Job-Man’, garlanded with a string of yellow and red flowers, spruced up with rose petals and perfumed with incense. ‘OMG,’ A exclaimed, ‘those are not the right colours; they are marriage colours.  The flowers should be white.’  I suppose at short notice, the school had to make do with what was available.   Maybe if Academic Director and Principal had made it to school just a little before the rest of the teaching staff…

And then, after having shown due respect to the deceased, Principal decreed that  there were not to be any rehearsals after all as such frivolities were not in keeping with the solemnity of the day and we would have normal lessons all day instead!  It seemed as if this option only just then occurred to her, so we all sighed a deep sigh and resigned ourselves to another day of indecision and whimsical changes of plan.  I could not resist having a word with Principal to point out that her changing tack suddenly made things just a little awkward for the teachers but my pleas fell on deaf ears and at 9.45 am I accompanied Principal to ‘Teacher Who Adjust The Timetable Every Day to Accommodate Things That Were Blatantly Obvious The Day Before’ to trash out revised timings so that all the normal lessons could be squeezed into the school day. At moments such as this, the word SHIT is woefully inadequate.  At least me being present meant that I could then pass the message to all the other teachers who had no idea of what was going to happen and were going to rely on the unreliable bell ringing of ‘Odd-Job-Man’ to find out the beginning and end of the lessons.

Without any lessons prepared, nor textbooks or other books to fall back on or board pens to play hangman with, my only solution was to use my memory stick laden with songs courtesy of The British Council and various other sources of free musical classroom entertainment.  So, we celebrated the life of the ex-president with jolly songs, reciting the English alphabet, learning body parts and singing  ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’  to our hearts content.  It was going to be a long, long day with little of my voice left at the end of it, I feared…

But then again, how could I not have known that a whole school day is like an eternity in which so many things can fluctuate and need altering…  At lunch time, Principal came to find me and took me in her confidence about the latest change of plan.  There would be rehearsals after all, starting at 2.00pm, unless any teachers would inform her they needed additional practice time… if so, she would, at her discretion, allow teachers and children to abandon all lessons today…  Somehow, the news spread like wildfire and in no time the whole school was buzzing and humming with excitement.  Rehearsals were back on and  will continue for the whole of tomorrow…  Just a minor adjustment to the proceedings of the Youth Festival: Wednesday’s events will take place on Saturday but the rest will go ahead as originally planned…

But it is still another 12 hours before the start of school tomorrow!  A lot can happen in that time and I will not be surprised if  we see further amendments and changes…  I have to keep on trying to go with the flow… Apparently, meditation should help with that, or so A and ‘Indian Man In The Know’ keep on advising me.

The truth about India, in a nutshell…

Someone send me the following nuggets about India…  And how true they are!  After almost six months (I can’t believe I have already been here that long) in their midst, I can definitely vouch for their accuracy (or at least most of them). IMG_0835There is no truer statement than this…  Every day relies on countless miracles and godly interventions because the Indian people certainly won’t make things happen without a helping hand…  It is a marvel anything happens at all.

IMG_0842 Do I need to expand on the merits of buying into ‘Indian Stretchable Time’…  The advantage is that you are actually never late.

IMG_0837 When I arrived in India, I thought the caste system had long been abolished.  How wrong could I be??  These days, for statistics purposes only mind you (???), at the school parents and children have to complete a form which asks them which caste they belong to…  And any men with certain surnames such as Nair have an air of superiority about them just because they were born in an upper caste… So much for social mobility…

And high school marks??  I suppose we all like to boast about these, but in India, the question has to be asked whether they were really deserved or bought???   At the moment, India is still reeling from the scandal of entrance exams for Medical Schools being rigged…  It seems money is more potent than brains to enter the medical profession.

IMG_0840 I like food and enjoy eating… but I struggle with the amount I am offered to eat and the frequency of the offers each time I visit Indian households. No sooner have you accepted and swallowed the first morsel of food than another helping is added… And this carries on and on and on…until you are ready to explode.  So in desperation, I asked ‘Indian Man In The Know’ how to avoid being overfed…  ‘Say you are fasting,’ he answered, ‘Indian people have great respect for that…’  Hmmmm… as people at school remark on my constant nibbling (fruit only, I may add), I am not sure they will fall for the ‘fasting fib’…  But the permanent tea time certainly goes some way in explaining the fattened waistlines of (some) Indian people.

IMG_0833 In a country where a cousin of a cousin is your cousin; and your neighbour is your children’s uncle; your mother’s friend is your aunty; and the children’s pledge at school makes all Indians brothers and sisters… no wonder that when someone dies, all and and sundry feel entitled to a bit of the deceased’s estate.

And if anyone had the audacity to want to make a change, there are plenty of relatives to stop them…

IMG_0838 This one does not need any further elaboration… It does not matter which side of the road you are meant to be on, if there is any space on any side, it is yours for the taking, even if it means flattening what is already there…

IMG_0839 A few days ago, Goutam Ghosh wrote the following in The New Indian Express about Indian attitudes under the title ‘We Indians are Ingenious, and Ingenuous too’: ‘We read of death and mayhem in the daily newspapers but that never dents our fortified perimeter round our microcosm.  We read of rapes, frightening murders that at times put ISIS butchery to shame, thefts, robberies and cheats; but the shelf life of the information in our heads is less than a few hours at most, saving us from nightmares.  We fail to respond to the external stimuli probably because it doesn’t fit into our larger aim in life: undisturbed comfort.’ IMG_0834 Corruption and bribery are the order of the day… IMG_0836

There is a saying in India that ‘bringing up a daughter is like watering a neighbour’s plants’. Daughters are a drain on a family’s wealth, needing a sizeable financial dowry in order to marry. Daughters are regarded as temporary members of the family as after marriage they will leave their family of origin and join a new household.  Daughters are not wanted and male offspring is much preferred.

Sex-selective abortion and female infanticide have skewed the girl-boy ratio in India. Although both are clearly illegal, they are still widely practised in many parts of the country.  Where pre-natal sex determination is not an option and girl babies are born, they are still in danger through either direct infanticide or through neglect.

Just in one week, I read the following stories in Indian magazines and newspapers:

1. A woman handed her 10th daughter to an orphanage just after she was born.  She did not hold the child for she could not muster any affection nor accept the burden of guilt at her choice.  The woman felt too ashamed to go home presenting yet another daughter, and could not face feeding another mouth.  Whereas a son would have meant a future to her, another daughter put more strain on an already overstretched family.  Where would the family get the money to pay the dowry when the time came for another daughter to be married?

2. Two suicides. No witnesses. No explanations. Two women in their early twenties.  One drowned in a well and was found by her husband hours later; the other chose self-immolation and her charred remains were discovered by her husband’s family later that day.   Although the newspaper did not suggest any foul play, a lot of questions remain unanswered.  What would have made those women’s lives so unbearable that they saw death as their only escape?  Or was S in the staff room spot-on when she linked the deaths to unpaid dowries?

3. Three young girls, aged 16 and 17, leapt of a moving train.  Two died instantly, the third succumbed to her injuries a few days later.  The motives for the suicide pact remain shrouded in mystery.  Could it be study pressure, or did the girls want to escape their inevitable future of a life of servitude and subordination in a male dominated society?

Kovalam: exotic but dangerous…

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I went to Kovalam this weekend, for a weekend of relaxation and pampering.  And where better to do this than in the luxury of a 5* hotel listening to the roar of the wind-frenzied Monsoon sea and delighting in the drama of the waves turning and churning as they neared the shore.  The waters, whipped up by the Westerly winds, crashed tumultuously against enormous boulders and the rocks protecting the promenade, sending up clouds of salty, but refreshing spray.  Dark, threatening clouds cast a bluey greyness over the water which only dispersed with the heavy rain showers. The golden winter beach was covered and submerged, leaving just a narrow strip of sand on the popular Eve’s beach, in front of the lighthouse.  The ripple-free blue expanse of the winter months metamorphosed into a fun-inviting, yet perilous, playing field for local tourists on a National Holiday and a day off work. Saturday saw the celebration of Eid, the end of Ramadan when Muslims break their fasting with an abundance of food and, of course, a certain measure of alcohol.
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And they had fun!  Children stripped to their underwear plucking up courage to take a dip in the water; young boys teased the waves and played chicken to see who would escape the turbulent surge; women in saris and churidars fell over laughing when they were no match for the oncoming and retreating waves. And teenagers, young men and students were there to dare the sea; they waded in deeper battling against the power of the swell, waiting with exhilaration to be dragged along by the force of the water.  They waved at me when they realised I was taking pictures, because Indians love to be photographed and often come to have a look at the result.

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But by Saturday night the idyllic holiday scene had turned into a nightmare as five young men went missing.  They failed to return from a dip into the sea at nightfall, possibly after too much merriment and alcohol clouded their judgement.  Although during the day life guards are present to warn tourists away from the more treacherous areas where jagged rocks stick out into the sea enticing the more adventurous to explore and climb to get even closer to the violent waves, their duties finish at sun down when the five men went for a swim.  One of the bodies washed up just after midnight, but on Sunday, the coast guard scoured the coastal area with small aeroplanes, supported by local fishermen and the navy.
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Coast guard using small aeroplane to look for bodies

Coast guard using small aeroplane to look for bodies (only a small dot on the photograph…)

Western tourists tend to be more cautious and take the dangers of the seas more at heart.  Maybe we are more accustomed to seaside outings and have read our guidebooks and are warned about the perils of the undercurrent of the sea in Kovalam.  But for many Indian families a trip to the seaside is a luxury they can only indulge in on special occasions.  And as for swimming lessons, those are only for the rich and few.  The absence of affordable and accessible swimming pools for a bit of harmless frolicking means the sea is an easy and free source of well deserved fun and reprieve from the summer heat…
Sunday morning... fly fishing balancing on a rock near the seething sea.

Sunday… fly fishing balancing on a rock near the seething sea.

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And on Sunday, the beach again attracted visitors, clearly oblivious to the tragedy of the previous day and unperturbed by the seething sea.  As for the fly fishermen on the rocks and promenade, they had a living to make and bad weather could not be a deterrent.

I also had my bit of seaside fun on Saturday, but I only dipped my toes into the water and was mainly an onlooker.  I have only once braved the waves around Kovalam in early March when the sea was tranquil and serene.  I found a secluded area where the surge was gentle and I swam in the deep blue water… but even then as I made my way back to the beach, I had to fight the vigour of the waves, trying to pull me back…  The peacefulness and safety of the sea was deceptive, even then,

Sand-coloured sand...

Sand-coloured sand…

The black sand of Kovalam beach

The black sand of Kovalam beach

Sunset at India’s Land’s End

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Long weekend… the advantage of Kerala’s Minister of Education being Muslim!  So what to do and how to make the most of it: another visit to Kanyakumari, India’s Land’s End, this time to experience the sunset!

Unfortunately, the Monsoon rains which have remained rather elusive in Kerala (or South of Trivandrum in any case) since they were first heralded in early June, came with a vengeance Friday morning and it was definitely umbrella weather… or actually not even an umbrella would have provided a wide enough shield.  But we (A and I) were not going to be deterred by a little bit of inclement weather and, having our air conditioned car with driver arranged, set off not in the least worried by the distinct possibility that the sun might be hidden behind the clouds and sunset may be a little underwhelming.  We wanted to get out and see the sights on the way, taking in the spectacular Western Ghats and the colourful lotus ponds (if you go at the right time of year this is, and Monsoon time is not the one).  Just for a few hours we wanted to escape the dust, the noise and narrow-mindedness of the small hamlet of N.  And this was an outing arranged by ourselves, so no hidden agendas to improve India on the cheap..

The journey was pleasant and went without any hiccups.  The morning downpour had not made the roads treacherous. Well, not more than usual as our driver, being on the young side, took all the unnecessary and normal Indian risks and every time a car was approaching from the opposite side, felt this was indeed the best time to start an overtaking manoeuvre.  We took our photo opportunities when traffic and the driver allowed..

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And we eventually reached Kanyakumari…  where the cloud deck remained firmly in place and was not showing any signs of budging.  But we lived in hope that maybe we would get a little peek of the sun slowly sinking behind the waves and the horizon.  Food vendors shared our optimism and were busy preparing snacks for the waiting crowds who slowly gathered on the promenade.  Maybe it was not the usual throng of sunset gazers, but there were quite a few onlookers, all intent on enjoying the spectacle regardless of whether the sunset would show itself in all its splendour or not.

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In the end, the sunset was a mere yellow blob in the sky sprinkling dazzling nuggets of gold on the turbulent waves.  So although the sunset may not have lived up to expectations, it was just great to breathe in the sea air and listen to the crashing of the waves against the boulders peppering the shore.  A satisfactory start to a long and relaxing weekend.IMG_0875

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Hooray! The End of Ramadan is Near!!!

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You could be forgiven for thinking that my outburst above is linked to me joining in with the month long fasting Muslims observe during the Holy month of Ramadan, but this would be far from the truth.  I like my food and although my waistline has again shrunk since returning to India, this is not due to foregoing the pleasures of eating, but rather caused by the monotony and lack of variety of foods available in the hamlet.  And it is indeed strange that whereas Indian women seem to be expanding exponentially with age, I am spared that experience, but then again I avoid eating rice and stick to a Western take on Indian food with loads of fruit and vegetables, the odd bit of chicken and fish, and masses of dhal.

My happiness at the end of Ramadan is merely spurred on by the knowledge that I can at last have unbroken nights of well deserved rest.  I have before been grateful for the lamenting of the mullahs at 5 am in the morning when the sound of my alarm clock just did not penetrate my slumber and I was at risk of missing my train, but having to listen to the painful wailing of the mullahs umpteen times a day and night is just a bit too much of a good thing.  Whereas the daytime prayer calls go mostly unnoticed as I am at school, I do not need to be alerted to the presence of the mosque at 10 pm when I am about to go to bed, nor do I fancy a wake up call at 3 am so I can have breakfast, lunch and dinner before the first light of day, followed by another need to face the East (or is it West as I am in India???)  at 5 am when I may just have dozed off again…  So the end of Ramadan means a good night’s sleep!!!

And two days holiday!!!  I certainly approve of the Indian view that to keep religious harmony, all main festivals are celebrated and this means plenty of national holidays.  Although the school diary was quite clear on Saturday 18th July being declared a holiday (very unfortunate for me as I never work on a Saturday), there were rumours that Friday would also be a day off…  But the decision for this was left in the capable hands of Imams who would be studying the movements of the moon at 6pm Thursday night (today) to ensure that Ramadan would not end prematurely.  Maybe the Indian habit of leaving everything till the last minute  is firmly rooted in the unpredictable (?) waning and waxing of the moon…   Luckily, the Minister of Education (being himself of the Muslim faith) saw sense Wednesday evening and declared Friday a holiday for schools only.  Finally, after six or seven weeks of hard slog, a whole day off.  Not quite the full week I would be having in the UK, but it is something….

Obviously the school, in the spirit of a multi-faith establishment, wanted to mark the occasion with suitable fanfare.  Children were encouraged to turn up in ‘fancy dress’ which, correctly translated into English English, refers to Sunday best clothes rather than pirates, fairies or cartoon characters.  And I give due credit to the few girls who clearly defied the school management’s order not to wear jeans; if boys can, why can’t girls…. The stage background grew some green minarets and everyone was greeted by ‘Eid Mubarak’.  And if I had been told that wearing green  – the most holy colour in Islam as it is a reminder of Paradise – was the done thing, I am sure I could have stretched to digging out a green shawl from the bottom of my cupboard. Since A. has joined the school and clearly takes the covering up with a pinch of salt, I have also adopted the same approach and dispensed with the totally useless and unnecessary garment that women wear…

Fancy dress or Sunday best???

Fancy dress or Sunday best???

Maybe Sunday best...

Maybe Sunday best…

And in great Indian tradition and without fail, such a celebration at school entails many long speeches and considerable disruption to the general school time table.  A local Muslim dignitary spent over an hour preaching in Malayalam; the owner of the school, School Manager, Academic Director and his wife the Principal further added their little bit of advice to lengthen the time the children had to sit patiently waiting for the end and lunchtime…  And eventually there was even a few minutes of entertainment: songs and dance performed by the older students.  All in all a riveting morning, as you can see from the photographs below…

And he went on and on and on and on....

And he went on and on and on and on….

Yawn, Yawn.  Let's play hairdresser's.

Yawn, Yawn. Let’s play hairdresser’s.

Making good use of the time available.   Fitting in a quick nap.

Making good use of the time available. Fitting in a quick nap.

Watch the hands.  Even the Muslims in the audience had better things to do.  Texting?  Playing a game?

Watch the hands. Even the Muslims in the audience had better things to do. Texting? Playing a game?

Even the dignitaries were having difficulties with concentrating on the events.

Similarly, the dignitaries were having difficulties with concentrating on the events.

But the girls enjoyed their performance and kept the audience entertained.

But the girls enjoyed their performance and kept the audience entertained.

Indian women who do not fit the mould…

I have company this year.  Although for a while there was the possibility of another Western volunteer joining me at the school, this never materialised.  There is no long queue of Western people waiting to flock to Kerala to improve the English of the locals; they only exist in the fantasy world of B, who is involved in a volunteer programme enticing British people to India at exorbitant fees and  whose grasp on reality can be somewhat dubious to say the least.  But a new teacher arrived at the school at the end of May, an Indian teacher with Western attitudes and good English; a gem to be cherished for her proficiency in English, but at odds with Indian society because of her Western mindset.  Suffice it to say that whereas my white skin protects me from criticism and I get away with bending the rules, no such allowances are made for her.

Being Indian, A. – who comes from New Delhi but has also studied in Canada – was given ‘suitable’ accommodation in the small village of C, near the school.  She was given the luxury of having a mixie, a kind of food processor/grinder which is indispensable in a Southern Indian kitchen to make such delicacies as dosas, idli, coconut chutney and fresh spice mixes.  Although her apartment had a bed and linen, it lacked every other kind of comfort such as a fridge or  television, and internet access was dubious at best. Clearly, the school’s manager was of the opinion that as an Indian woman, A. could dispense with such extravagances.  A. has recently married and her husband, a white Canadian, is trying to jump through the hoops of immigration to allow his wife to join him, but this could take another 15 months.  In the meantime, A is living the life of a misfit in Indian society, shunned by the locals for being a ‘bad’ Indian woman and not quite accepted in the white world either as her experience with Western ex-pats in Goa taught her when they closed ranks and excluded Indians from their  social clubs.  A lonely existence.

So it made sense for the two of us to live in the same house.  As the Westerner in India, I have a fridge and a television and my internet is pretty good when there is electricity… and teaming up with A. has given me access to a ‘mixie’ so I can try out new recipes with the meagre supply of ingredients available in the local shops.  Also, her insight into Indian culture is often invaluable and she can shed light on the peculiarities of life in India for a Westerner like me.  Although the management put every obstacle in the way to ensure the two of us would not become ‘pally’, they were bound to fail.  We have too much in common not to become friends, so regardless of the wishes of the school’s management and the power games they played,  A. moved in with me in early June.

And her arrival did not go unnoticed. ‘ Inebriated Upstairs Neighbour’ immediately found cause to come and introduce himself and check out the new addition to the downstairs household.  A. indeed invites curiosity as she does not follow Indian customs by bedecking herself with the customary jewellery or red dot on the forehead or hair parting to indicate her marital status and this can lead to misinterpretations; at the age of 35 she should be properly married with kid(s) in tow and husband in charge.  But neither of us had any intention of getting more closely acquainted with the upstairs neighbour, so he was given a cold reception and left with hanging tail.  Now, this did not go down very well and clearly ‘Inebriated Man Upstairs’ had his nose put out of joint and was looking for revenge…

His opportunity came a few weeks later when A. accidentally left a bag of food waste at the bottom of the steps near the entrance of the house.  As the school composts food waste and we consume considerably more fruit and vegetables than the average person in Kerala, we generously donate towards the school’s composting project; it also rids us of the problem of what to do with it anyway as fruit and vegetable peelings cannot be burnt easily which is the only option available to us for dealing with rubbish.  On our return from school, ‘Inebriated Upstairs Neighbour’ was hanging over the balcony, eagerly awaiting our arrival so he could chastise us.  We duly apologised and thought no more of it; it was indeed an isolated oversight on our part.

But the next morning, we found a letter from the landlord at the doorstep, clearly intended for me as the main tenant:  ‘To whomsoever it is concerned.  It has been brought to my notice that garbage and other solid waste is thrown at the entrance of my building by the servant maid. This may kindly be avoided.  The wastes may be deposited in the spot where it is meant for in the compound pit in your compound or in my compound pit set apart for this purpose.   To the Resident living in the ground floor.  Signed: The owner of the house.’   The implication was clear: as the white woman in India, I was availing myself of  the services of an Indian woman; the only ‘obvious’ explanation to the claustrophobic mind of Indian society.

Unfortunately, A. who is a highly educated Indian woman and teacher, was the first to see the letter and saw red.  Not only was the note demeaning to her, the facts were distorted. Needless to say that as two like-minded women, we did not take kindly to this behaviour and visited the landlord at the earliest opportunity to put matters straight.  Although in the Western world it may seem a very logical step for women to confront the landlord (who is a man and therefore a figure of authority), in India this was slightly daunting as women are meant to be demure and submissive, but we decided that we were capable enough to fight our own battles and did not need men (in this case the School Manager) to do it for us.  Thank goodness, I had already spoken to the landlord on several occasions to iron out a few issues, and we get on really well, so we put our side of the story and clarified A.’s position as a teacher, not servant, and the fact that we have never thrown waste anywhere, but burn it….

We have not heard another peep from ‘Inebriated Upstairs Neighbour’ since… and he is keeping out of our sight.

One-nil to the ladies in India.landlord letter

Battling the enemies in India..

You may be surprised to find that they are actually not the human kind…

Last night I managed to trap a busy cockroach, scurrying around in my bedroom!  Thank goodness I caught it as I would not have slept a wink otherwise; and as the creature did not do me any harm really, I set it free this afternoon when I returned from school..  I must admit, as it was pretty motionless by then, I had assumed it had moved onto the next world, but clearly on landing on the stones of the courtyard,, it quickly recovered and hastily disappeared under another stone somewhere.

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And when I opened the curtains this morning, I was greeted by the hugest spider ever….  This time, I did not even attempt to capture it, but waited patiently until it decided to move of its own accord.  I have not yet checked my bedroom to see if it has found its way out….  but I am not aware of any dangerous or poisonous spiders around in the area!!

I decided to leave this one in peace...

I decided to leave this one in peace…