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Archive for July, 2007

Everything lost nothing gained

I took a couple of days off in Pondicherry at the weekend and as ever it wasn’t without incident. Initially I had only gone there for a new pair of shoes since I thought the pink flip-flops I was borrowing weren’t really me. After purchasing my new sandals with ‘cool stuff’ written across them where you might expect 3 stripes or a swoosh I thought I should celebrate with my first beer for a couple of weeks. 8 hours later after meeting some fine new friends in Qualite bar I floated home on my new cool stuff sandals. I soon came back down to earth though when I realised to my horror I didn’t have my bag with me. I walked back through the downpour to the bar which to my dismay was closed so I walked home drenched as the full scale of my horror started to dawn on me.

Normally I don’t take anything of any real value or importance out with me because I know that after 8 hours in a bar I am more than capable of losing whatever I may have including my shoes. However, I wasn’t entirely happy with the security where I was staying so decided to take it with me, bearing in mind I was only going out to do a bit of shopping. A drunken sleepless night didn’t help when I started to realise what was actually in the bag i.e. all my worldly goods. Never before had I kept my passport, cash card and cash in my bag along with my laptop and camera…until now. Various scenarios went through my mind throughout the night, none of them very positive in their outcome. I still had another tortuous 2 hour wait in the morning waiting for the bar manager to turn up without even knowing if I had actually left my bag in there at all. I knew we had also gone for something to eat but I had no idea where and nor did I have the contact details of my new found friends.

I had 37 rupees to my name, enough for a cup of tea, a bottle of water and my bus fare back to Chidambaram so the grunting beggar with hand out expectantly didn’t get the best reponse as I sat sipping my water but I’m sure he’d understand if he knew my predicament. When I got back to the bar, Peter who I had met the previous night also happened to be there enjoying a hair of the dog and for some reason I felt a wave of relief which soon turned to despair when the manager Satish told me there was no bag and he could in fact remember me leaving with it. I had spent the entire night convincing myself there was nothing to worry about, it had to be in the bar. Suddenly it was a serious situation and all the scenarios came back to me - I’m supposed to be going travelling in a few weeks - without a passport. How long before I can get a new cash card and what do I do in the meantime, I need to get to Chennai, photocopies and all my paperwork is still in Chennai, how do I get to Chennai with 22 rupees! My laptop - the value was the least of my worries - ALL my work, my notes, my photographs - all gone. The more my mind went round the worse it got. Even the memory stick I had backed my work up on on a few days previously - in the bag. Even all my written notes, absolutely everything - in the bag.

Somehow Peter could remember where we had eaten and that was my last hope since he could also confirm we had been nowhere else so we went round there on his bike, fortunately, thankfully, praise be, they recognised us immediately and there on the top shelf was my bag!

All hail Peter because today he saved my life!

After a large brandy with my bag on my lap I returned to my room and did what I should have done in the first place and padlocked it in the wardrobe. With my passport firmly in my zip pocket I went back out and celebrated for the rest of the day with my tale of woe.

As a more amusing footnote I went for a fine meal that evening with Peter which was a bike ride away, we drove back to where it had all started and had some tea before he dropped me off at my hotel. When I saw him the next day to say farewell he wasn’t convinced he had the same motorbike he had started the weekend with and when I went out to have a look at it nor was I. It was the same model but somehow different. Further doubts were raised when he found a disposable camera in the luggage box instead of his phone charger. However, rather than face the music he gave the keys to Satish in Qualite bar and did a runner back to Mumbai. It was later confirmed that we had indeed picked up a different bike outside the restaurant and the correct one was waiting outside the police station!

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Who ate my shoes?

I’m beginning to get a bit of a complex about my feet.  When I went out for a walk this morning I discovered one of my shoes was missing. Now this is bad news since it’s the only pair I have and they’re only a couple of weeks old after my last misadventure I spent the next half hour wandering around aimlessly confused when I suddenly spotted something resembling it in the field next door. My joy didn’t last for long though as I approached it I realised resembling it was about as far as it went since there was only half of it left and the rest was nowhere to be seen. I’m assuming and indeed hoping it was just a dog, snakes are bad enough but the thought of confronting a shoe monster through the night would be too much to bear.

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Grecian 2007

I was a bit taken aback this morning when I stepped into the shower - I use that term loosely since it is actually a bucket and jug - with my new bottle of shampoo - Chik, only to discover when I poured it onto the palm of my hand it was jet black. More like something you might put on your shoe rather than your head. On considering the options and realising that grey has overtaken the  mouse closely followed by the bald in the race for my crown I decided I had nothing to lose and was even slightly disappointed when it turned out to be perfectly normal, if black shampoo. This was confirmed when I looked in the mirror and the grey was still streaking ahead. Maybe I didn’t leave it on long enough…

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The Boss

boss.jpgI’ve thought since I have been in India that there is something not quite real about the place, that everything seems slightly larger than life - then I went to the cinema for my first Tamil movie experience and realised that the reality actually pales into insignificance compared to what is shown on the big screen.

The cinema itself was quite large but only about a quarter full so why we were all crammed at the back I didn’t really understand until the hero - a middle aged, middle spreading man they call ‘The Boss’ appeared on screen and bedlam broke out. I knew I had forgotten something before I had left and it was obviously my whistle. Screams cheers and whistles, through love scenes, fight scenes, dance scenes and I’ve no idea what scenes. Not even the bats flying across the screen seemed to deter people.

I left over 3hours later completely gobsmacked, speechless and dumbfounded. The strap on my shoe snapped as I staggered home, completely bewildered and by now barefoot compounding the fact I think I was in a genuine state of shock.

I’ve tried to think of a Hollywood counterpart for ‘The Boss’ and decided there simply isn’t one I can’t even think who he looks like other than the MV Foundation accountant Ashok. Apparently it’s on worldwide release so if ever you get the opportunity, take a deep breath and go and see Sivaji - The Boss, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

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I’ve never been a money person, in fact I think people who make a living counting it are a bit weird, so I have a suggestion. Every person involved in finance in ActionAid, make that all NGO’s, in fact make that anybody who makes a living out of money should be forced to spend a night, make that a week in an Irula hut during the coming monsoon season.

I have been at the Bharathi Trust for a couple of weeks now, based outside Chidambaram which even makes it into Lonely Planet. However, the project involving the seriously marginalised Irula tribespeople doesn’t. Perhaps it should, theirs is a plight which has caused me to witness my most distressing scenes which have this week made me feel ashamed to be human. At the same time it has been both heartening and inspirational to be with Madame Siddamma who founded the Bharathti Trust and has been working to improve the lives of the Irulas for 16 years now. She has helped me maintain my belief that we can be a force for good and so long as there are people like her there is still hope. The fact that people are still living on the margins in tiny temporary palm huts 2 1/2 years after the tsunami is a disgrace. The Indian government who refused to recognise the plight of the Irula in the tsunami aftermath should be ashamed. The fisherfolk who had been living alongside the Irula prior to the tsunami but who threw them out of the area post-tsunami because they did not want to include the Irula in the rehabilitation process should be ashamed. The Indian people in general who have kept the Irula on the margins of society, holding them as slaves in bonded labour, denying them their rights as a scheduled tribe and cheating them out of land that is rightly theirs should be ashamed.

After a long struggle Madame Siddamma has secured the construction of over 300 houses for the Irulas with the aid of ActionAid and Malteser. Unfortunately, as I have witnessed these last couple of weeks, the behemoth that is ActionAid as one of the presiding International Non-Governmental Organisation’s (INGO’s) has demonstrated the inflexibility of such a large organisation and as such the whole project has been close to collapse because funds haven’t been released by the money counters in Delhi.

It’s difficult to be critical of ActionAid but lack of flexibility due to procedural constraints is central to the INGO problem and at the same time it is the poor and marginalised who they are championing that continue to suffer. In their defence though the Great British public as an example have demanded transparency in allocation of funds, especially post-tsunami and ActionAid have wholeheartedly supported this kind of transparency and rightly so. However, when a building site on the Tamil Nadu coast needs bricks, sand and cement to continue and complete construction before the arrival of the monsoons and the Irula are washed away once more, but the money to buy the materials isn’t forthcoming because release of funds needs to go through various bureaucratic procedures including head office in Delhi then you just want to strangle an accountant! These are people lives we are dealing with, not simple figures, numbers and statistics.

See how quick they might release the necessary funds if they’d spent a week in an Irula hut during monsoon…

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As a bit of an aside to basic human rights and dignity I thought I would do a bit of a cow photographic project. I see so many of them about and they are after all sacred. Maybe that’s why they always have such a nonplussed expression - because they know their place - right at the top, vying with Shiva himself! They’re the least inspiring creature I have ever seen so I am determined to get at least one good picture although I have realised that isn’t going to be easy and I can now feel an unhealthy obsession coming on.

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Left but not forgotten

I moved on to a new project today, leaving the incredibly successful MV Foundation (MVF) behind. I will never forget my stay with them and all the things I have learnt.

MVF at the request of ActionAid entered Tamil Nadu 3months after the tsunami to assess the educational needs of those affected. At the time, people were still homeless and grieving, their childs education was the least of their concerns. They needed homes, food, livelihoods and dignity. MVF could offer none of these and as such were the least welcome of the NGO’s who had descended on the area and at the time they met with stiff resistance. However over 2 years later they are still there when many others have left and hundreds of families have successfuly been made aware of the importance of education and motivated to take their children out of labour and into the education system.

On top of that, 70 children - former child labourer’s and school drop-outs - attended this years bridging course camp and every one of them passed their respective exams and have since been enrolled in government schools. Obviously enrolment doesn’t come without incredible difficulties regarding admission fees and numerous other obstacles placed in a poor families way.

A system whereby bribery and corruption is often the only solution is a system that desperately needs to change. For that to happen somebody needs to take responsibility for every step of the administrative chain, and in India, a society laden down by bureaucracy that is a very long chain. Hopefully MVF will remain in the area if further funding is forthcoming. The ActionAid tsunami programme comes to an end in December so there is no guarantee MVF will be able to continue with their work. They still face a huge challenge, in Tamil Nadu there remains thousands of child labourer’s but it is a challenge that must be confronted if children are to enjoy a childhood without labour and a future with real opportunity.

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Brian ‘Swamy’ Morris

As I was walking through a couple of the tsunami affected villages yesterday I stumbled across a tiny temple, there was a large elephant and horse sculpture left intact and rows of what looked like horses that had been left in ruins leading to the focus, a small sculpture of a Swamy deity. I thought nothing of it as I took some photos until my volunteer Chitra warned me I would have nightmares tonight for taking a picture. But I’ve said my prayers and showed my respect I protested. My protestations fell on deaf ears and I returned home haunted by Chitra’s comments. No matter where my religious beliefs may lie superstitions always get me but I still managed to fall asleep within a moment of lying down.

That was until at about 4am I woke up sweating with a picture of Brian Morris in my mind. Brian Morris was my lecturer in religion at Goldsmiths college, the archetypal anthropologist and an inspiring lecturer, but not exactly someone who enters my mind on a frequent basis. So I was a bit shocked to find myself running through a forest being lead by Brian Morris in his usual frenzy and chased by demons.

This experience hasn’t helped my superstitions and I would suggest you DON’T look at this picture!

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It would seem in India they have their own methods for the state encroachment of civil liberties the poor souls in the UK have recently suffered…

They ignore it…

Tamil Nadu recently (June 1) introduced the compulsory wearing of crash helmets for motorbike riders and I still haven’t seen a helmet yet. A couple of weeks later the law was changed to exempt females riding pillion - apparently it plays havoc with the jasmine flowers they put in their hair - and children - not surprisingly since a parent couldn’t possibly be expected to supply that number of helmets when they have 4 children riding pillion and two more hanging on the fuel tank!

It was therefore comforting to know that although I was obviously risking serious injury I was flouting the law when I was picked up the other day and I was what I suppose would be termed forward pillion since there was three of us on the bike including a girl sat behind me, jasmine hair lawfully flowing in the wind.

Flout the ban!

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Did You Know? The longest line in the Bible is Esther 8:9 - 89 words, 425 letters.