Category Archives: Kerala

Food shopping Chinese style.

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I love food and, by now, have mastered the art of eating with chopsticks almost as expertly as any Chinese person… But the novelty of free school canteen food has long since worn off, and finally my first pay cheque has come through.  Shopping time!!!  After yet another trip to the local IKEA store I now am the proud owner of a wok AND a proper frying pan!  I have managed to sizzle bacon to a crisp and  rustle up French toast with fried bananas in the hollow of my wok , but believe you me, a wok and omelettes???

If getting proper utensils, cooking equipment, crockery and cutlery was half the battle, the other challenge is getting the right ingredients.  Although living in a more Westernised part of China, and in the vicinity of a branch of Wal-Mart, means I am not totally deprived of recognisable foods, they come at a price, an exorbitant price.  Cheese comes wrapped in plastic,  at about £4 for 200g.  Exotic cheeses such as Camembert are encased in protective tins, not quite authentic but the taste is not that bad…  Bacon and butter are available and a luxury I cannot do without.  And as for coffee?   Even at £9 for 1oog of instant, coffee is a must as I would struggle to start the day without it.  And when I next venture to IKEA, I will invest in a cafetière or other coffee making device and buy some real ground coffee to tickle my pampered taste buds…

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On the upside, the Chinese love their greens and there is an abundance of vegetables on display in the supermarket, in the little vegetable shop around the corner or in the fruit and vegetable market.  After India, or the little hamlet of N in Kerala to be more precise (my Indian friends keep on pointing out that my view of all things Indian is pretty much warped because of living in a village rather than a town) where the scarceness of green vegetables all but dampened my excitement about food preparation, here the choice is myriad. From the familiar pak choy, spinach, leeks, broccoli and Chinese cabbage, to the more exotic such as lotus roots, all kinds of mushrooms and weird vegetables morphing into Laughing Buddhas.  It is vegetable heaven!!!  I still have to discover how to prevent each dish from having the distinct flavours of soy sauce, ginger and garlic, but I am working on that.

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And then there is the meat… It takes some getting used to seeing raw chicken in a ‘free-for-all’ display and to watching Chinese shoppers delve into the delicacy of chicken feet.  In the supermarket, pork and beef are carefully sheltered behind plastic barriers and kept under a watchful eye, but in the market meat is on display on large metal or wooden tables, a rich selection.  Only, I am not so sure about buying my meat there in a few weeks time when the summer heat and humidity are bound to bring flies and other unwanted buzzy things in their wake.

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In Wal-mart, barrels and barrels of dried fish in all shapes and shades of grey entice greedy hands to fill enormous bags.  Shrimps, prawns and langoustine, barely defrosted, are available at prices that make them an affordable treat. Of course, there are the live specimens where you can ‘pick your own’ with freshness guaranteed.   I have not been brave enough to try; a whole fish for one seems just a little over the top and not knowing which fish is which, I have avoided that challenge so far and, when on special offer or reduced in price,  stuck to rosy coloured salmon all neatly packed and wrapped…

And as for pigs cheeks, pig heads and other interesting meaty things getting perfumed by the fresh and polluted air…  I keep on the look-out for vegetarian protein whilst I conjure up memories of India with its mouthwatering dahls and finger-licking paneer dishes.  Tofu just doesn’t do it for me…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Nemo Hiding in India’s Coral Reefs

I had planned to complete my Indian adventure in style and indulge in a little snorkelling, just a mini-break to unwind after the intense teaching experience and to top up the tan before heading back to the UK in time for the whirlwind of Christmas.   My initial idea to sample the exotic sounding Andaman and Nicobar islands had to be shelved courtesy of the endorsement on my employment visa that put ‘restricted areas’ out of bounds.  ‘Disaster,’ I thought, ‘Where else to go and find Nemo??  That is, if there is such a fish as Nemo in the waters surrounding India..’

I cannot remember now how I learnt about the ‘Indian Maldives’ or Lakshadweep – a group of atolls just off the Keralan coast.  Maybe Google pointed me in the right direction or it could have been that Dr. Anne mentioned them to me, but it sounded like the perfect solution.  Several islands to choose from, some of them uninhabited, and certainly almost virgin territory for visitors, Lakshadweep is a carefully guarded secret destination that only recently has found its way onto the tourist map.  And if discovering Lakshadweep had been a triumph, organising a four day stay on the islands was definitely a tour de force!!  Being used to Western efficiency and the internet at my fingertips, I had not counted on the Indian bureaucracy and their slow pace of working.  Or maybe, India is quite rightly trying to preserve the unspoilt islands from the onslaught and havoc that tourism usually brings in its wake.   A visit to the islands requires a permit and lots of patience to deal with the one and only organisation issuing them.  After four weeks of intense negotiations trying to squeeze the visit into my last few days and spending a whole day organising payment in the absence of an Indian bank account and no internet payment facilities,  it got all sorted.  Seemingly against the odds, I got my paperwork allowing me access to Bangaram, one of the uninhabited islands with tented accommodation and no electricity during the daytime, no internet or telephone at any time… Peace at last! All that was left to do was book my flight to the island of Agatti, and we had lift-off.

If sorting out the four day stay had been laborious, and the three hour delay for take-off in Cochin was just par for the course, once we touched down on the island of Agatti everything ran as clockwork. A fleet of taxis awaited us to take us to a motorised fishing boat for onward travel to the different islands.  And what an extraordinary trip it was:  the breathtaking beauty of the turquoise and cyan waters touching the Carolina and Columbia blues of the sky (I had to look at a colour chart for this…);  crystal clear water barely shading the seabed of white sand;  countless hues of blue shifting with the depth of the sea; dark blues betraying corals and rocks;  the spray of salty sea water and the warm breeze giving relief from the heat of the sun; in the distance the palm fringed beaches embracing the islands:  it was awesome, easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

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Accommodation on the island was provided in comfortable, spacious tents with en-suite shower facilities, and the water at nature’s temperature was perfectly refreshing after a dip in the sea…  Breakfast, lunch and dinner were cooked by a little army of Indian men, under the supervision of Navas, whose job it was to ensure our every need was satisfied.  As only thirty guests maximum were allowed on the island, it made for a rather intimate group of travellers, and the lack of electricity dependent entertainment meant after dinner conversation flowed easily.  A great way to exchange travel experiences with a Polish couple scouting new locations for their travel agency; with a Japanese travel writer who had just discovered Lakshadweep; with a couple from Switzerland who spent all their winters travelling in South East Asia to escape the winter cold; with a group of Swedish fishing fanatics who were hoping to add fishing in the deserted waters of Lakshadweep to their portfolio of fishing experiences and were waiting for a seaworthy big vessel that never arrived…  They eventually set off in two rather mingy boats, without shelter for rain or sun…

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I spent three days luxuriating in the limpid waters surrounding the island of Bangaram.  On the first day, I joined  a snorkelling trip to a shipwreck which had rested on the sandy seabed for about 100 years.  Close to the coral reefs, the rusting remains had forged a symbiotic bond with rich algae attracting an abundance of colourful fish.  Blue and yellow angel fish, stripy fish, and indeed orange Nemo clown fish darted in and out of the decaying boat; corals opened and closed as they sensed our approach; brown corals turned a bright red or deep blue on our touch.   The stunning spectacle kept us entranced for well over an hour before we climbed  on board again.

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We journeyed on to the island of Parali where sea turtles tried to evade our approaching speed boat, so we jumped off the boat and joined them in the crystalline water.

We stopped on a small uninhabited island for photo opportunities, stepping over boulders of dead corals, which time was unhurriedly grinding into fine, powdery sand.

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The next day I kayaked to the uninhabited  island of Thinnikara, a mere hour’s work made light by Navas, who graciously offered to accompany me.  Halfway, we jumped out of the kayak to explore the corals in the middle of the lagoon.  Getting out of the kayak was child’s play, but Navas had forgotten to explain the intricacies involved in getting back into the kayak with nothing to support my feet…  There was no other option than me being man-handled into the boat, only for it to tilt and finding myself being flung back into the water…  I eventually hauled myself aboard and managed to stay inside the boat.  And Navas?  After having made a right spectacle of myself, he graciously pulled himself up at the back of the boat, minimizing any chance of a wobble…  Why had he not demonstrated to me how simple it was??

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I circumnavigated the island of Bangaram at low tide, when narrow sandy strips surrounded the palm groves and lake in the middle.  I surprised  shy crabs scuttling into the nooks and crannies of rocks, or rushing to the safety of the waves.  Sea cucumbers lounged lazily near the shore.  I waded through the shallow waters and frightened fish into hiding.  I found a most perfect shell and could not resist bringing it home with me as my one and only souvenir of India – well, I am not supposed to be collecting too many belongings whilst I am on my travels as I have nowhere to keep them…

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And every evening I watched the sunset, and every evening I watched a different scene unfold:  a deep red sun casting a red glowing column on the sea surface; soft pink tinged clouds riding across a pale blue sky;  a dying sun’s yellow rays set the sky alight from behind darkening clouds.    In the morning, the sun would slowly rise burning through the morning mist, brightening the grey sea and erasing the early clouds.

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But I left my most exciting experience for the last day!  I decided that although the snorkelling was indeed amazing, I wanted to try scuba diving.  Not going too deep, mind you, just a dip of three meters to get a feel for it.  All booted and suited, learning to breathe through the diving mouthpiece and having practised the trick with blowing through your nose to equalize pressure, I was ready to give it a go.  And yes, it was fantastic to be so close to the corals and fishes, to be part of the landscape, to be right in between the fishes and stir up the sand at the bottom.  Unfortunately, the water was cloudy that day and visibility was poor, but it did not detract from my enjoyment and I will have to put scuba diving on my list of ‘things to do more than once in a lifetime’…

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Sampling India’s modes of transport

Dr. Anne sent me an email this week.  It looks like she has already found herself a new travel companion and last weekend they ventured to Varkala.  Oh, how I envy them.  To feel the kiss of the sun on my skin, to for a couple of days pretend to be a tourist in India and rubbing shoulders with other Westerners, comparing and exchanging stories about yet unexplored  travel destinations…  What did ‘Indian Man in the Know’ say?  ‘You will miss India when you are gone…’  ‘Not in a million years,’  is what I thought…

But travelling with Dr. Anne using India’s public transport has indeed left me with some unforgettable memories to cherish!  That, and other ventures making ample use of other means of transport in India.  Although I probably cannot boast to have sampled all of them, I have experienced a fair few…

The old style elephant ride

There is nothing comfortable about an elephant ride.  I have tried the ‘sit-astride-the-back’ approach and the ‘squashed-in-the-box’ approach and I have vague memories of an elephant ride in Jaipur a long time ago.  The only blessing is that as most elephant rides are extremely short of duration, the labouring lumbering left-right, back-and-forth shifting is unlikely to induce motion sickness.

 

The humble bicycle

Before arriving in India just over a year ago, I had visions of using a bicycle.  I saw myself cycling to school and easily covering the mere distance of 16 km to the beach on a Sunday morning.  Not only would it be cheap transport, it would provide simple, easy, always accessible exercise.  The dream evaporated as soon as I got the measure of the little hamlet of N.  Yes, there were indeed bicycles, but only men would ride them taking their lives in their own hands, wobbling perilously in between impatient cars and even more impatient motorcycles.   No wonder some cyclists take extra precautions by adorning the handle bars with a rosary… Ladies clad in saris would struggle to mount a bike, and let’s face it, as there is clearly effort involved in pushing the pedals to achieve any forward movement, no Indian woman would be in the least tempted to use the humble bicycle.  The plan got shelved.

 

The scooter/motorbike

I tried to avoid being a passenger on a motorbike, but this was not always possible.  The scariest motorbike ride was in Pokhara, Nepal, when Bish Po – a 40-something man whom I met up with a few times – decided to show me the most wonderful sunset over the lake.  I had not been warned that he would turn up on his motorbike and had no idea I was accompanying him to a friend’s house…  It was a sultry evening, warm and clouds heavy with rain.  The roads in the town were tarmac-covered, solid, with just a few potholes to slalom around; it seemed safe.  So I mounted, being encouraged to hold him tightly.  ‘Put your arms around my waist, head resting against me.  That is the safest way…’  Really??  I kept my hands firmly on the metal bit at the back and pushed my feet as hard as possible against the footrests and hoped for the best.  I was not really looking for an intimate experience on the back of a motorbike.   Off we went…  Soon the fairly smooth road surface gave way to a more familiar one:  atolls of tarmac  scattered amongst a sea of gravel and holes big enough to  sink the Titanic.  And to make matters worse, the house overlooking the lake was perched on a hill with an almost 90˚ incline.  We bumped and bounced to the top, him enjoying every minute of it, me holding on for dear life and stubbornly refraining from our bodies moving in unison on the bike… We made it in one piece, but the sunset drowned in a rain shower and I panicked: no way was I going to sit on the back of the motorbike on the way down that hill.  It was pitch dark by the time we finished our meal, no moonlight to brighten up the path and the rain made the stones and boulders slick and slithery.  I insisted on walking down the steep part before eventually getting back onto the bike – I did not fancy a five mile walk…

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Auto-rickshaw

A very useful, but rather expensive means of getting from A to B in India is using an auto rickshaw.   ‘Expensive’ has a  completely different meaning in India.  Whereas for a tourist, 300 rupees makes barely a dent in the pocket and is a bargain compared with Western World taxi fares, on my meagre salary 300 rupees was a bit of an extravagance only to be indulged in when buses were not an option.  On the upside, after a year in India, I knew how to negotiate my prices and calculate the cost before setting off.   Pleas for an increased fare because of yet another impending Hindu holiday were easily ignored, and on a few occasions I simply stopped the auto-rickshaw and left the driver standing, unpaid, when an agreed fare suddenly rocketed sky high once the wheels started moving.  And to ensure my safety, it was a comfort to know that some auto-rickshaw drivers did not take any chances and displayed gods of all denominations in the hope that at least one of them would be on hand if disaster should strike…

 

Bus

I travelled mostly by bus, even before I met Dr. Anne, as it is the most convenient mode of transport.  It can be a little hairy to find the right bus as destinations often are  only written in Malayalam, but usually after asking a minimum of three people and finding a general consensus regarding where the bus was heading, I felt safe to get on board. Or should I say, to join the battle to elbow myself onto the bus.  Queuing is an alien concept as Indians only understand the ‘me first rule’, so even before passengers on the bus have a chance to alight,  passengers on the pavement start to heave themselves inwards.   And the sign intended to reserve seats for pregnant women, the disabled, the elderly or people with small children is ignored by all as men and women of all ages and ability take up positions and have no intention of giving up their ‘deserved’ seats…  Although I admit I once shamed one young man into giving up his seat for a woman who was holding a small child on a very long bus journey as he was hogging one of the reserved seats – there were other men as well, but the thirty and forty somethings were clearly not going to budge…  Although the ‘Ladies’ sign on the buses seems to be more of a deterrent as men generally steer clear of that side!

 

Trains

India must boast the longest trains on the planet.  Platforms go on forever to accommodate numerous compartments:  air-conditioned class for a different class of traveller with deeper pockets or for Western tourists; general class for short distance and local travel and mostly standing room unless you have managed to beat the throng or have been more successful  in the elbow fights; sleeper class for long distances or more comfortable travel where there is more of a chance of a seat for a small supplement; reserved compartments if you want to be guaranteed a seat, but this needs to be booked ahead; women only compartments to ensure men do not have to sit next to women whom they are not related to – although on the one occasion I agreed to move to the women only compartment, I did get a seat…

Until I started travelling with Dr. Anne my experience of trains had been limited to the AC compartments (when my journeys were booked by men who thought they did not need to ask what I would prefer…) or in the general class for my monthly trips to Varkala – no need to pay the extra for AC – I could cope with being squashed for an hour on a train crammed with commuters.  However, Dr. Anne introduced me to the more sensible travel in sleeper compartments or reserved seating compartments without reserving a seat in the first place…  We often tried our luck in the sleepers and moved when requested to another free seat.  And as for paying a supplement when the conductor checks your reservation, or lack thereof, I hardly ever had to show my tickets so never paid anything extra.

Travelling in the carriages used by ordinary Indians was much more interesting as it often meant fascinating conversations with ordinary people who spoke good English.  I shared a top berth with Fauzia, a 27 year old Indian girl who loved her independence and wanted to find her own husband rather than being matched with ‘ a suitable specimen according to the horoscope’.  We talked about Harry Potter and exchanged titles of books that had grabbed our attention.  A twenty something man wanted advice on finding a job in England – I recommended a Syrian passport….  I was evicted from my top berth by a woman-hating, black-and-orange robed pilgrim on his way to Sabarimala, a Hindu pilgrimage centre, after he manhandled men on the train who refused to move for his troupe of cronies.  I watched the spectacle unfold from above and was bemused when they almost came to blows.  Needless to say that my invitation to share the top berth with him was rejected, so I graciously conceded defeat and moved along to the next top berth…  Mostly though, train travel is a great way to connect with the Indian public, the normal people.

Just don’t expect the trains to run as Western trains.  Although delays in England are common place, it is nothing compared to the happenings in India.  Lack of information boards on the platforms, or even train numbers on the  tickets add to the challenge of getting onto the right train.  Last year when travelling back from Periyar, Emma (another volunteer in Kerala) and I boarded the train at the correct platform at the correct time, but when asking other passengers to help us locate our seats, found we were on the wrong train, so got off…  Our train did not arrive until an hour later…  And I met Pete in Varkala, who left on Friday to travel South, only to reappear the next day, as the train he took was heading in a Northerly direction.  And when Dr. Anne and I returned from Munnar,  with only minutes to spare due to a rather extended bus journey through the gridlocked roads , Dr. Anne rushed to the ticket counter.  A heated debate ensured us tickets on the right train: an express train speeding from Bombay to Trivandrum and beyond.  With tickets in hand we raced to the platform and boarded the train, Dr. Anne having ‘carefully’ listened to the announcement which indeed featured Bombay and Trivandum, and the train slowly gathering speed.  We congratulated ourselves for making it just in the nick of time, after an exhausting eight hour bus journey that morning.   But just ten minutes later, we realised our error.  Yes, the train was indeed travelling between Bombay and Trivandrum, but clearly on its way to Bombay, not Trivandum…  Luckily, or should I say unfortunately, even an express train makes plenty of stop along the way, so our mishap only added another three hours to our journey.  I eventually made it home at about 10 in the evening, after an early morning 7.30 start by bus…  Maybe, just maybe, sometimes it makes sense to pay for a private taxi… but where is the fun in that!!!

 

 

 

 

Embracing my second youth in India, with Dr. Anne.

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‘Youth is so wasted on the young’.  I cannot agree more with the truth in this statement.  Whereas years ago, twinsets and pearls dignified our graceful mothers and funereal black adorned our sweet smiling grannies, we are no longer burdened or held back by the boundaries of numbers.  And Facebook is awash with quirky quips about people defying social expectations to live life to the full, and with not a thought wasted on what others will think…  And this was the spirit Dr. Anne and I took with us on our last trip together, visiting Thenmala near the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.

A last minute meeting Dr. Anne was unable to escape meant we did not leave Trivandrum until well after lunch and arrived at our destination early evening, which left us only Sunday to explore the area.  We managed to organise our taxi for the next day – buses would probably take too long – and found a cheap and cheerful place for the night to recharge our batteries for the adventures lying in wait.

Things did not get off to a good start as our pre-arranged auto rickshaw lacked punctuality.  As we had no time to lose, Dr. Anne -clearly of the same stock as me and rather short on patience-  immediately set upon organising alternative transport.  But by the time our replacement car arrived, our first driver turned up as well having found a car, rather than using his auto rickshaw…  It was a sensible move, but, as Dr. Anne argued, he had not answered his phone to let us know what he was up to, so he was given short shrift and left standing by the roadside…  We did feel bad though, because his explanation that he had had no mobile reception was a very plausible one.

 

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Our first port of call was the Urukunnu Pandavanpara Sree Shivaparvathy Temple, an ancient Hindu temple perched on a huge rock overlooking the neighbouring mountains and river.  Luckily the trek up the ‘hill’ did not start from the bottom; our chauffeur took us about half way and then accompanied us to the hill top. With lots of huffing and puffing and being grateful we were attempting this at the crack of dawn whilst it was still cool, we hoisted ourselves up the roughly hewn steps, rocks and boulders to reach the naked crest.  And as this was a temple after all, we had to leave our footwear at a reasonable distance from the building and brave the gravelled surface barefoot.  Although the ‘temple’ itself was rather underwhelming, the views of the surrounding hills were amazing and certainly worth the effort to get to the top.

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Next on the list was a visit to the Palaruvi Waterfalls.  We had already seen a fair few waterfalls on our previous trips, so what was one more added to this?  On our way, we passed the famous Thenmala dam where the resident troupe of monkeys added interest and entertainment to stunning backdrop views.

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The Palaruvi, literally meaning stream of milk, is one of the most picturesque waterfalls in Kerala, and it did impress when we finally got to it after walking through some dense jungle paths.  Surely, my favourite part of the waterfall was the  bathing place,  a secluded area where a narrow cascade of tumbling fresh water offered the opportunity for a shower ‘au naturel’.  Of course, Dr. Anne and I were ready to take advantage and had no qualms about joining the men and boys who were swimming, splashing, photographing groups under the water deluge, some more dressed than others..  However, Indian modesty nipped our ambition in the bud.  We were indeed allowed to have our own shower, but not until all the men had been removed and chaperoned to a more private area..  ‘Why?’ we wondered as neither of us had any intention of baring it all.  We had not brought our swimming costumes, and somehow did not feel like going down into our undies under the watchful gaze of the security personnel who ensured no illicit photography was taking place…  So, fully dressed we waded across the water and balanced on the rock to get drenched under the waterfall – but no pictures allowed.  Dripping wet, but with big smiles on our faces, we found the changing rooms and put on yesterday’s clothes and moved on to the next attraction.

Thenmala has recently been developed to become an ecotourism destination in India, promoting wildlife and nature treks, hikes, night camping and an adventure park amongst its advertised attractions.  It was a pity we only found out when we arrived in Thenmala, because both Dr. Anne and I would quite happily have joined a group of hikers to traverse through the jungle.  In the event, we only had time to check out the adventure park.  With just about two more hours to fill, we directed our driver to the park and joined the twenty-something Indian youngsters in search of some thrill.  We scaled the heights of the Comando Net and crossed the pond by Flying Fox – not too sure about the safety of the safety buckles but I thought that the water would break my fall in the event of a mishap.  Our boat ride was hijacked by the park attendants who needed to disentangle the operating ropes of the Flying Fox (thank goodness, this was AFTER we had had our go).  We left the mountain biking and rock climbing to the younger generation and took to the elevated walkway..  as by then we were running out of time and still had to get back to Trivandrum and beyond.

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And in the true tradition of all my travels with Dr. Anne, after a smooth journey to our destination, the homeward leg dragged on and on involving several bus changes and waiting, and waiting for the next bus to turn up.  But on the upside, I had by then not yet experienced the pleasure of being with 15 travellers in the back of a jeep intended for 6 people at the most…  Five men squeezed in the front of the jeep, six people crushed on each of the benches inside, infants squashed on mothers’ laps and the rest… Others perched their bottoms on the back flap, or stood on the back bumper and hung on for dear life whilst the driver was clearly in a race to his journey’s end.   I was glad to have found a seat inside…

Is there such a thing as a Sari Bra???

 

 

My first foray in the art of sari wearing happened last January on the occasion of Republic Day.  As the school manager himself – we were still on talking terms in those early days – commissioned the purchase of two saris for me, I could hardly refuse.   I grudgingly agreed to turn up on the day swaddled in yards and yards of clingy teal synthetic cloth around the bottom half of my body, whilst I feared exposing my white fleshy mid riff.  On the upside, at least clad in the teachers’ uniform, I would not stand out quite so much when the parents would arrive to watch their children’s performances to mark the ‘auspicious day’.

Taking me under her wing, Malayalam teacher supervised buying the necessary underskirt and as she was handy with thread and needle, she saw to the sewing of the blouse.  After casting a mere appraising eye over my body, she dispensed with measurements and, indeed, turned up the next day with the sari blouse ready for fitting.  I let slip a sigh of relief,  at least I was not yet presented with the finished product.  Malayalam teacher applied a few nips and tucks, made adjustments  in the appropriate places and another day later, a properly tailored blouse arrived.  Properly tailored of some sort…  The blouse would only fasten after squeezing all air out of my lungs and tight sleeves threatened to cut off the blood supply to my lower arms.  And clearly, Malayalam teacher had overestimated what would fill the pointy boob cavities she had provided.  Why would anyone make those ‘cups’ pointy?  I studied my boobs carefully and could not see the point!!  So on that occasion, I resorted to a well padded bra that just about let me stretch the blouse enough to pull the fasteners together.  It seemed to do the trick and to be honest, by the time all the layers of fabric and the pallu (the bit that hangs aimlessly at the back) had been adjusted, the front of the blouse was well and truly out of sight.

Although I felt I had done my bit in the sari wearing department, the discovery of a ten-year old sari tucked away at the back of an under-the-bed drawer during my clear-out of the house in May, opened up new possibilities.  Bought on our family trip to India in 2003, the sari had been destined for cushion covers, or maybe a bed spread…  Either the deep burgundy red had looked less appealing at home or at odds with the prevailing bluish shades in the decor, than on my body in the Indian sari shop under the watchful eye of a persuasive shop assistant. as it got mothballed and forgotten about.  To be quite honest, I believed it had long since been disposed of.  Excited by the prospect of finally wearing this sari if the right occasion arose, I packed it in my already bulging suitcases and took it with me to India.  The only things left to negotiate were the making of the blouse and draping the fabric in the required fashion around my waist and top.

After my ‘churidar’ tailor refused to tackle the blouse stitching first on account of ‘being too busy because of Onam’ and a few weeks later on account of ‘not being in the business of making sari blouses’, I was a little stuck.  I did not want another blouse with pointy bits at the front…  I scouted the school for a suitable seamstress.  As most Indian women can wield needle and thread, I approached New Maths Teacher, who in her maiden state had more time to do the necessary needlework than her married counterparts.  So what if she did not feel the need to take my measurements??  I gave her my one and only blouse as a perfectly fitting sample which had turned out well, although I explained I preferred the blouse to follow the natural contours of my upper body.

Two weeks passed and the long awaited blouse appeared.  I was itching to have the fitting as this time I selected a sleeveless blouse model. A bit on the risqué side for Kerala, but being white and Western, I would probably get away with it.  Unfortunately, the fitting stage did not materialise, as New Maths Teacher presented me with the finished product, which did not fit at all…  It nicely followed the contours of my upper body, but lacked room for my arms and neck…  I groaned and reluctantly bought some matching fabric to have the blouse made somewhere else.  I remembered A (the teacher who lived with me for a few months) talking about a little tailor shop she had used to make her sari blouse just before she left, so I ventured out with lots of hope.  Taking the disastrous blouse effort as a sample of the style I was looking for, I felt sure of success.  Could they please take measurements and only use the ill-fitting blouse as an example of the model I was looking for.  Measurements duly noted, I left and felt at peace in the belief that surely this time using the expertise of a ‘professional’ tailor, my blouse was in good hands.  I returned two days later to another blouse that would not stretch around my rib cage and sleeveless holes big enough for two people…  Another sigh escaped my tight lips, how could it be so difficult to get this right??

For a while I gave up on the sari wearing, defeated and deflated by the numerous attempts to get a blouse made.  Maybe it was not meant to happen…  And then I got invited to Art Sir’s wedding and there it was, the perfect opportunity to show off my best frock, if only I could get a blouse made.  Drastic measures were needed.  I bought a matching fabric – the original part of the sari had shrunk dramatically in all the efforts to produce a wearable blouse – and thought that black would do the trick.  Taking no chances, I bought enough fabric to fashion two blouses: one with and one without sleeves…  I did not venture into the tailor’s with a sample blouse but insisted on being properly measured this time and indeed, three days later the blouses were waiting for me.

Best to try them on before paying, I thought.  I was ushered into a back room to avoid the gaze of nosy passers-by as the shop looked out onto the road.  But I had the benefit of the input of ‘Woman with Mask’ who peered at my attempts through the caked and creamed up layers of her ‘facial’ .  She spoke good English which was a bonus.  Watching me pulling the blouses into place and squeezing every breath from my lungs to be able to close the blouse fasteners, she nodded approvingly.  ‘And the pointy ends over my boobs, surely this was totally wrong,’ I argued.  ‘No, no,’ she explained, ‘you are wearing a churidar bra, not a sari bra!  With the right bra, the blouse will fit perfectly!”  A sari bra??? Why had no one else mentioned this before…  I have since consulted the internet and googled ‘sari bra’, unfortunately so far the internet has remained stubbornly silent on the subject…  There is no evidence of such a garment as a sari bra…  So I will just resort to extra padding and hope that the sari itself will cover any unsightly bit of the blouse.

So I proudly wore the sari for Art Sir’s wedding, after two teachers spent the best part of half an hour dressing me using copious pins to hold the fabric in place.  I managed to stumble up two flights of stairs constantly treading on the superfluous material at the front and held the whole thing together just long enough to see the wedding through… By then the heavy silk had started slipping downwards, exposing more and more of my white mid riff.  So I went home, on the bus, and got changed into the more practical churidar…  The effort involved in wearing a sari for longer than an hour or two was too much for me.  Saris are definitely nice for special occasions, but day to day???  Not for me!!

 

Masters in the Art of ‘Bullsh–ting’

After a while, you learn to take an Indian promise with a huge pinch of salt…  The  sin of lateness is expunged by the elasticity of Indian Standard Time; birthday party invitations arrive without venue or address attached; debilitating bugs strike conveniently at the eleventh hour incapacitating hapless victims;  the desks and chairs for my classroom which were supposed to make an appearance by the end of June, then by the end of July, then end August were actually never ordered;  ‘here’s my  phone number.  Let’s meet for coffee….’ ‘WITH caffeine???’  ‘I’ll phone you on Sunday, (but only if it is to my benefit….)’;  ‘It will happen when it happens’, to use Indian Man In The Know’s expression, although should we perhaps add ‘if it happens at all’??  In India words are just meaningless utterances fluttering  fecklessly in a capricious wind… It is only Westerners who are diistracted by their possible significance.

Tea workers on strike in Munnar

Tea workers on strike in Munnar

And yes, on a personal level, I have (ALMOST) learnt to go with the flow and lowered my expectations below the lowest of the catacombs; lest I get confused with Western values such as commitment, honesty, reliability…   So remember how I wrote just a few weeks ago about the tea pickers’ strike in Kerala which had finally reached a conclusion…  A promise was made by the plantation owners, agreeing to a pay rise for the tea pickers.  Not quite on the scale hoped for by the tea pickers, but a pay rise nevertheless…

Fast forward a few weeks later, a mere week actually after the local elections saw gains for the Government’s ruling party in some parts of Kerala and a real trouncing in other states…  The eagerly awaited declaration of election results drew jubilant parades and motorcades wielding triumphant candidates’ banners and flags onto the streets in and around Trivandrum.

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elections 1

Last Monday, I picked up the newspaper at school.. .  Headline news: “Plantation Owners make a U-turn on Wage Hike’.  The official explanation pointed to such an increase being unaffordable at a time of low prices for tea and rubber.  But delving a little deeper, it transpired that the Association of Planters of Kerala had only agreed to the salary increase to help the government during the local elections, or so the Association’s Chairman is alleged to have said, suggesting they never intended to keep their word…

So much for promises and agreements… often not even worth the piece of paper they are written on…   Let’s see who will win in the stand-off: the Plantation Owners, the workers, or a government distancing itself stating that there will be no going back on the agreement and the pay rise will go ahead…  All has remained quiet on the tea front since Monday and so far no new strike has been called, but then maybe the tea pickers cannot afford another period without income and this may be exactly what the Plantation Owners were banking on…

 

Exploring all that Munnar has to offer.

sunday munnar

Munnar was definitely on our list of touristy things to do!  Tea and spices;  the crisp cool of the lush, green hills shaping unrivalled scenery.  Dr. Anne and I pencilled in a long, long weekend.  With so many adventures on offer, we needed more than a couple days.

We left on a Friday, before the crack of dawn for me, my dutiful and reliable auto rickshaw driver arriving punctually at 5.30 am!  We had decided to  make our way to Munnar by bus, as per usual when travelling with Dr. Anne as my companion.  Having learnt from my previous long distance travels, I limited my intake of coffee in the morning and had stocked up on snacks for the eight-hour journey.  But this time the driver was equally in need of sustenance and a toilet break and we stopped at a roadside café where passengers enjoyed a delicious meal of dhal and parathas at Indian prices!!

We reached Munnar in the early evening, passing the still striking tea pickers taking up prime positions in the centre of the town.  Too late to start exploring Munnar at that time, we found a local tourist shop and booked two days of sightseeing by  taxi, with chauffeur.  Even Dr. Anne agreed that local buses might not be the most efficient way to check out Munnar!

striking women

On Saturday our driver took us up, high into the Munnar hills, where the tea is growing and clearly one ‘not striking’ tea picker carved out a job posing with willing tourists.  In no time, cars, motorbikes and people milling around caused an early morning traffic jam… Being the weekend, obviously Dr. Anne and I were not the only visitors admiring the beauty of this part of Kerala and we were guaranteed to have plenty of company throughout the day.

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And in between being chauffeured, we lapped up all kinds of adventure:

We ate fresh passion fruit, sucking out the deliciously sweet seeds from its soft, spongy cocoon, overlooking the lake near Mattupettu Dam:

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mattaputa dam

I agreed to another elephant ride, sitting astride the huge beast – they promised to find me a small one!!  Luckily, it was only a five minute jolt in the jungle.. at the astronomical price of 400 rupees… but at least I could still walk at the end of it;

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We listened to our echoes bouncing back from the surrounding hills at the aptly named Echo Point, where luxuriant green hills  turn the lake into a cauldron of witches’ brew – just the bubbles are missing.

echo point

We learned to steer a pedal boat on Kundala Lake.  Both Dr. Anne and I were experienced ‘pedallers’ but had on earlier trips left the steering to the men folk: husbands and sons who generally were deemed more capable.  Not so any more.  After spending some time enjoying going in circular motions, we got the boat under control and manoeuvred it expertly back to the starting point.  And managed to take in the view as well!!

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boat lake

We positioned ourselves in between the greenery of the tea leaves, with no intention of picking a single one.  We were not in the business of breaking the strike!!

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We were charmed by the incredible display of exotic flora at the ‘Rose Garden’, before heading back to Munnar to indulge in a little shopping for spices to take home…

passion flower

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flower

At a spice plantation, we spotted the ‘exotic’ spices and flavourings that add fragrance and heat to Indian curries, inevitably followed by a detour through the shop and some hard sell…  but how many cardamom seeds, cloves, cinnamon, black peppercorns, mace and nutmeg will I need in the next few weeks??  We saw cocoa and figs, ready and ripe, and Arabica coffee beans.

cocoa

We witnessed spectacular scenes over the hills, courtesy of moving clouds alternately hiding and revealing parts of the tea bush covered surroundings.

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We drank sugary Indian tea delighting in the bluish hue of the distant Nilgiri mountains and glimpsed faraway views of waterfalls tumbling down the steep cliffs and hills.

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munnar flower

And then we continued our adventures the next day: a day of trekking, waterfalls and elusive spectacular views stubbornly shrouded in thick mist…

misty munnar

misty munnar 1

Munnar is nestled in the hills at the convergence of three rivers,so  no wonder that there are many dazzling waterfalls about…  We viewed many, but also managed to have a dip in one, and as always, the company was excellent!!

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waterfall 8

waterfall 1

waterfall 2

waterfall 4

waterfall 5

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waterfall 6

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And to complete our stay in Munnar, we were entertained by a martial arts display and obviously could not miss out on the photo opportunity…

martial arts

We eventually headed back home on Monday, a trip that should have taken us about eight hours or less as this time we were going mostly downhill towards the coast. But having various possible routes available to us, we opted for a bus that would take us to Ernakulam where we could then board a train to Trivandum…  Clearly any journey on Indian public transport was bound to add to the adventure, and so it did….  but this will be the subject of another post.

Travels in Kerala with Dr. Anne.

Fishing in backwaters of Kumarakom

Fishing in backwaters of Kumarakom

Talking about a banana boat..

Talking about a banana boat..

Saturday afternoon - kids having fun in the river

Saturday afternoon – kids having fun in the river

I met Dr. Anne on my first trip to Kanyakumari, way back in early July, almost a life time ago.  It certainly feels a life time ago.  Dr. Anne is a ‘retired’ doctor, and at 68 still fully employed and in the thick of it.  A misfit in Indian society: a woman who makes her own decisions and tries to break the mould, with a husband who allows her free spirit to blossom.  Whilst hubby takes charge of a menagerie of cats and dogs in Maharashtra, Dr. Anne provides palliative care for cancer patients in Kerala.  Dr. Anne hails from Kerala but has not lived here for quite some time and is just as keen as me to explore all the wonders the state has to offer.  So as soon as I returned from Nepal, we met over a sumptuous dinner of chicken biryani and came up with a plan of action, or rather a list of places on our to-do list.

On our first weekend we headed to Kumarakam, a bird sanctuary not far from Dr. Anne’s ‘home’ town.  I cannot say that birds are my thing, but any chance to escape the little hamlet of N has to be grabbed with both hands.  So off we went, early Saturday morning, by bus.  Dr. Anne is a firm believer in using public transport, especially using buses.  ‘It may well take a little longer than by train but it is definitely more exciting than going by taxi.  You meet more people,’ or so she  claimed.  Five hours later – including my extra hour getting to our meeting place in Trivandrum – we reached Kottayam, bursting to go to the loo and dying for some sustenance.  No such luxuries as toilets on Indian long distance buses, nor time for food stops. And then one more hour by bus saw us indeed to our destination.

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And the bird sanctuary? A backwater trip by boat was required to guide us along tranquil Kerala  rivers to spot the resident wildlife.  Only having arrived at midday, we missed any dawn chorus as well as the magnificent deep pink sea of lotus flowers in full bloom.  By lunchtime most of them had sealed themselves shut, carefully guarding their secret morning display.  And birds?   We counted about three…  apparently Kumarakam’s birds migrate and were not expected back in the area until December…  Still, not all was wasted and lost.  We had a fantastic lunch of fried Karimeen fish and succulent prawn curry after carefully selecting the seafood we wanted to eat.

kamarakam

kamarakam 5

Luckily the rest of the weekend had not been planned in detail, as per Indian tradition it all got changed last minute.  Instead of finding a hotel for the night, we were invited to spend Saturday night with Dr. Anne’s family…  So I met her brother, sister-in-law, her nephew’s wife and two children, her friend and the neighbours; got the grand tour of the house; uprooted Dr. Anne from her usual bed which I was to take whilst she slept on the sofa; was confined to the house whilst heavy monsoon rains kept us company; spent most of the evening, the whole night and the best part of the next morning in darkness as an uprooted coconut tree caused a power cut; had dinner by candlelight and storm lamp without the romance; and entertained a three year old bouncy boy who had great fun imitating my English.

The rains finally subsided on Sunday morning, in time for us to start our journey back.  As it had taken six hours to get to the bird sanctuary and another two to reach Dr. Anne’s family house, we left before lunch heading for Kottayam, by bus of course!  And then onto the train, which was full to the brim.  But Dr. Anne is a seasoned traveller and used to elbowing her way into a carriage, and squeezing herself into the tiniest bit of space…  I, however, found a seat all to myself.  Being in a sleeper carriage intended for long distance travel meant there was room right at the top, on a berth just below the ceiling fans.  I clambered, not quite ladylike I must admit, on the metal ladder and hoisted myself up.  I used my rucksack as a pillow and put my head down – not enough room for sitting except in yoga pose – and slept all the way to Trivandrum,  four hours of blissful rest to the tune and the hum of the railway.

Squeezing into a space on the train.

Squeezing into a space on the train.

Travel on the top, in comfort.

Travel on the top, in comfort.

The next weekend we ventured on a day trip to Punmoody, the highest ‘hill’ in the area, a gem ‘just outside’ Trivandum at a mere 50 km away.  And indeed in the Western world, 50 km is hardly worth worrying about.  But this is India, where snail’s pace traffic is the norm and crawling up the hills mandatory, if only because the buses can’t get up speed!!  No such rules for motorbikes menacingly weaving in and out, racing around blind corners and giving chase.  We set off for Punmoody in the early morning, arriving well before lunch time and ready to hike the last few kilometres.  At the entrance, I was relieved of 600 rupees, whereas Dr. Anne – being Indian – paid just 20 rupees.  Not even the hills are free in India, the Indian tourist industry has clearly smelled an opportunity to make a quick and easy buck!!  My indignation did not get me anywhere as I had not brought my passport or visa registration documents to prove that I was NOT a tourist, so no concessions for me.

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Nevertheless, it was amazing to witness the constant shapeshifting of the hills in the Monsoon season. Low hanging clouds, pregnant with rain, swept across the sky, trailing sheer cotton-wool layers.  People spectres hazed  in barely translucent fog.  Rocky outcrops appeared naked, people ants precariously balancing on top. And just as we were ready to climb the outlook tower, it was swallowed up by a thick, impenetrable mist . Punmoody is difficult to describe, but definitely worth the experience.

ponm 6 punm 7punm 12punm 8punm 10On our way back, we stopped at a waterfall, MY entry fee again inflated because of my ‘tourist status’.  We walked at a brisk pace; it was getting late and rain clouds threatened a soggy hike.  On our way up, we glimpsed some visitors dipping in the swollen river, where nature had carved out a small pool. We climbed higher, stumbling over rocks and tree trunks. We held on tight to the railings and ropes on the sides and pulled ourselves upwards, the sultry afternoon heat making our clothes clammy with sweat. Fewer and fewer people shared our path…  Had we missed the waterfall?  I went ahead and eventually spotted a waterfall between the trees.   Was this it?  Apparently, the best spot to view the waterfall, the whole waterfall, had been closed off because the heavy rainfalls of the previous days made it too treacherous.. But they did not tell us, nor adjust the astronomical (for me) entrance fee…

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Our way back took hours longer than expected. Because of our little detour, we missed direct buses to Trivandrum, the one hour journey took about three.. But we got there in the end…  Maybe there are some advantages to using your own personal taxi driver, and I may need to discuss this with Dr. Anne after all…

Three ubiquitous questions posed by inquisitive (or plain nosy??) Indians….

boby ewing

Typical.  Just as I am preparing to leave India and the little hamlet of N, things are on the up!!  A brand new gym has opened, just two minutes from where I live. Apparently it has been there now for about five months, but as all the adverts and billboards stubbornly and exclusively make their announcements in Malayalam, it was rather lost on me.  I only found out about it last week courtesy of Anandu.  Yes, Anandu still sporadically darkens my door, but I suppose we have settled on a truce:  I do not offer any work and he has stopped asking, so we just chat standing in the doorway.  Not only does N now have a gym where ladies are welcome, we also have a new supermarket in the same building as the gym.  I can combine a daily workout with daily stocking up on vegetables, fruit and milk.  I  have even spotted exotic items such as red and yellow peppers, purple spinach (I know, it’s not green, but it IS spinach!!), papayas and watermelon.  My food trips to Trivandrum are numbered, hooray, unless I want basil, or courgettes, or pak choy…!!!

Looking at yet another merciless downpour courtesy of the Retreating or North-Easterly Monsoon last Saturday, I paid the new gym a visit. And after ironing out a few crucial issues – I wear shorts in the gym, not a churidar, and will use the machines on the men’s side as much as on the women’s – I handed over my 1000 rupees and became their latest member.  It has been a while since I have had the pleasure of meeting new people in N as my face has become a familiar one here, but in the gym on the treadmill I am clearly fair game for the women and girls who give their curiosity free rein, as only people in India would…

‘What is your good name?’  A simple question, easing you in gently, after all it is only polite and it helps to be on first name terms in the neighbourhood.  Not that I have any chance of remembering their names.  But what is this issue about my ‘good name’?  Am I supposed to have another ‘not good’ name??  Is my ‘good name’ the one that appears in my passport and my ‘not so good’ name the shortened version I use every day?  The mind boggles…  After sifting through myriad internet entries on the subject, the consensus seems to suggest there are two viable interpretations: 1. it quite simply means ‘what is your name’ and is a rather interesting literal translation from Hindi; or 2. it refers to your proper/full name, as opposed to any nickname you may be using.  The meaning is clearly all in the context, or the origin of the person who asks the question…  I stick to giving them my shorter name, seems the easiest solution and has worked so far.

Once this hurdle has been negotiated, questions move on to your ‘native country’.  What’s your native country?  Native country???  All they want to know is which country I have come from…  So why not phrase it like that?  Simply: ‘Which country do you come from?’  But it seems that Indian English and its expressions have not moved with the times and are still firmly stuck in the post-WWII era…  Whereas the rest of the world has integrated and forged close bonds and all kinds of English have amalgamated into a universally understandable language (possibly excluding the accents of the North of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the West Country, the drawl of the Southern US states…), Indian English has bucked the trend and gone its own merry way, relying on the English of the Raj and books!!!  It was like a breath of fresh air to bump into an American tourist on Thursday who shared my view after encountering similar problems with reading an ‘English’ newspaper in India.  Just like me, she needed to read each sentence at least twice to be able to grasp the meaning…

And then things turn to the last, inevitable question… ‘Where is your husband?’ as if the thought of a woman on her own in India, unsupervised by a man, is totally incomprehensible.  ‘Are you married?’  I used to let out a deep sigh before uttering the inescapable ‘D’ word whilst I could feel the tarnish spreading like a rash all over.  It does not matter where the blame lies, being a woman means that I am to blame.  A good woman does not lose her husband…   So, I have been tempted, tempted to use the ‘W’ word instead, as widowhood does not infer burning guilt.  And when I reach a country where the D word does not have the same stigma attached, I would definitely resurrect him and give him his ‘Bobby Ewing In The Shower*’ moment: of course he did not die, it was all a dream.  But for now, I have no intention of answering Remya’s indignant, ‘Why are you not married?’  I turn away, stung by the unintended accusation, and leave her question suspended in the thin air.  Some things are just too personal.

*for those unfamiliar with the infamous scene in the soap, Dallas, Wikipedia has the details, of course…. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Ewing

There’s something brewing in the hills of India, and it isn’t tea.

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Lush green tea leaves, waiting to be picked, but no one picking them...

Lush green tea leaves, waiting to be picked, but no one picking them…

For the best part of four weeks, tea leaf picking ground to a halt!!  The lush hills of the Western Ghats were brimming with greenery: bright green tea leaves bursting from their buds and begging to be picked.  But there was no one on the hills to do the picking.  Fed up with low wages and paltry living conditions, women put down their baskets and took to village and town squares and to plantation entrances to sit in protest and to demand a decent hike in their monthly pay packet. And after four or five rounds of talking, negotiations had reached stalemate with neither the women nor the plantation owners willing to budge from their positions, and then there was the added interference of a government out of its depth…

This was not the first such protest and probably won’t be the last, but this time the women tea pickers refused to be represented by the ‘official trade union’ consisting mainly of men.  Women were beginning to find their own voices, not wanting be sold out by the men who most likely would have been bought by the plantation owners anyway.  In a society that treats women as inferior in every aspect, apart from the areas of cooking, cleaning, child bearing and rearing and keeping silence, this led to tension between the women’s movement and the official trade union.  And on occasions the women were pelted with stones or attacked in the dark on their way home…  It had not gone unnoticed by the men that whilst the ranks of protesting women had swollen as time went on and they formed their own ‘union’, the numbers of participants subscribing to the agitation by the ‘official’ men-led union had not seen a similar increase…  And in the meantime, the prospect of a quick end to the dispute remained elusive as the plantation owners demanded an increase of productivity of nearly 50% for a meagre return of about 25 rupees (roughly 25p).  It was clear that the demands of the women would never be met entirely and the stalemate would only be resolved with compromise on both ends… Which is what happened last week as the strike was called off after an agreement was finally reached.

But it was encouraging to see that there are  women who are prepared to take the initiative and defy the order society has imposed on them far too long.  Women are just as capable as men and their views are just as valuable; they just have to learn to believe in themselves.  And it will take time and bravery, but those happenings in the tea hills are a sure sign that the tide is turning in India and women power will eventually come, whether men like it or not!!!

Striking women in Munnar.

Striking women in Munnar.