Location: Chennai (Madras), Indian Subcontinent
So after OM'ing myself silly in an ashram for almost three weeks and doing yoga till i could do all sorts of strange postures, getting used to only eating twice a day and learning to sit still and very straight for more than 30 minutes morning and night, i finally made it to Chennai. I arrived here last Sunday and was instantly mortified by how much hotter it is here than Kerala. The sky was perfectly blue which at home is a real treat but here just means its going to be sweltering with the humidity and the full sun! Alas they tell me the monsoon is yet to come, it arrives in this part of India only in October. At first i thought great I love the monsoon, but then they tell me usually the streets get flooded and washed away and its likely there will be at least a few days where you cant even go out and wont have power for days on end.. mmm something to look forward to.
So after coming to terms with the fact that i will be ruining all my clothes by sweating profusely for the next three months, i arrived at my new home. A 3 bedroom apartment in the upmarket suburb of Anna Nagar. Anna Nagar is not a tourist area by any means, its more for middle class Indians. So I have been elevated to a new level of weirdness by being the only foreigner in the area, well for now anyway. Three British women will shortly be living there too. I went into a local restaurant the other night which was slightly more fancy than I had anticipated and the waiter almost fell over trying to be polite with 'madams' and hovering over me while I ate. It was very sweet but rather than making me feel welcome like I suppose it was meant to I felt totally embarrassed and ridiculous so I scoffed my food and ran!
Started work last week. The office is really lovely, clean and quite so its a bit of a haven from "India" and to my delight they provide breakfast and lunch! which is doubly good because its more like home cooked food, safe to eat and healthy AND its free. they are also all very lovely and accommodating people at the office which is great and they help me with things like where to buy good Indian clothes, Mobile phone ( yes it had to happen. How could I not have a Mobile? i was asked. Indians are even more obsessed with mobiles than at home) and how much to pay for a rickshaw to work.
But its not only the people at work who are lovely, i have been humbled many times but how lovely and hospitable Indian people are. Today a lady walked me 15 mins out of her way to show me where the market i was looking for was. and everyday there has been so many lovely people who tolerate my ignorance of not knowing where i am, not understanding what they are saying (accent here is very hard to understand) and even when i go into a place to eat and i am the only foreigner not to mention the only woman, mostly they are very eager to look after me and help me out. So i am feeling very lucky to be amongst so many generous people and to be having this whole experience.
Week two in Chennai started off a little better after a weekend escape to a small beach village, I have been visiting the projects the Banyan run and working out a plan for what exactly i will be working on and here i might be able to offer some input. Seems there is an infinite amount of scope to do good work here but as i have been warned by a friend who just finished her social work placement in a town not far from Chennai, things happen very very slowly here. So while i see infinite potential it may be that only a few thing Will be done in my time here. My main focus here will be working in the urban out patients clinic which has recently started up is run mostly by volunteers. I will be doing a lot of training of the vollies around doing assessments and working with the clients and will probably put together some resources for them to have and to pass onto new volunteers.
So all in all Chennai is hot and sticky, noisy and polluted, crowed and dirty but the people are overwhelmingly friendly and inviting and everyday here seems to be completely different. Such is India. One moment you love it, the next hate it but for some reason just don't want to leave!
Location: Mumbai, India
In the land of extremities, contrasts and things that just dont make sense, yesterday Flint and i experienced this first hand by staring in a Bolloywood movie! Well maybe starring in is a bit of an overstatement, we were extras, but not just milling around type extras. It was really all too bazaar.
I had heard of foreigners being asked to be in Bollywood films in Mumbai but never really thought much of it. Even when flint mentioned to me that hed been aksed by a scout to be an extra in a film the next day, i felt a bit apprehensive and bored at the idea of sitting around in a film studio when there was the whole of Mumbai out there to see. But when we woke up on time just by chance for the early meeting time, i felt it was maybe a sign that i should be a part of this.
Meeting with about 15 other tourists outside Maccas in Mumbai, i really had very little expectaions. As we rode on the bus to the film studios, the other foreigners told me more about what to expect. Apparently there would be hair and make up, costumes and lunch! it was sounding a bit more exciting. I had just thought we would be filmed in our regular clothes, looking like regular foreigners. But this was not to be.
Arriving at the studios it was straight to to the dresing rooms. No fussing around. After donning a black evening dress, the best I could find from the selection of what looked like early 90s vinnies collection, and a pair of painfully tight strappy heels it was straight to hair and make up. I emerged with my face coated about two inches thick with make up and foundation and my hair pulled back so tight i already had a headache, but don't worry about that, we were ready to be stars!
Flint and the other boys dressed in tux complete with bow ties, very James Bond! . And who would have guessed but we were to be starring in the Bollywood version of Casino Royale! Absolute classic.
Far from being boring it was one the most interesting days i have ever had. Not least figuring out all the roles of the workers on the film set. there was the choreographer who was very cool and the silent director. Then there was the big star, Naheer Dyan i think her name was. Absolutely gorgeous. It was hard for everyone, especially the Indian boys who were also extras to take their eyes of her. especially as she was dressed as a pirate suit and wearing a tiny little short dress with over the knee high black leather boots! Bollywood may be turning a little bit soft porn!
We also talked to a lot of the Indian people who were extras. Some of them do it full time and get paid about 1000 rupees a day which i think is pretty good for an unskilled wage here. one guy i met had been doing the work for 7 years> i suppose it was like his carrer. As he put it, he mixes work with entertainment!
We even got to see some real live Bollywood dancing which was really super. And as just a little extra surprise, whch not many people noticed, the actor from Slum Dog Millionaire, Rajiv Kahn who plays the main policeman interrogating Jamal, came onto the set to visit the director. When he walked in he had quite a presence about him and he is obviously very well regarded actor.
At the end of a very long day, more than 10 hours on the set, we were free to go. With our 500 rupees payment in hand, some new friends, a few good photos and a lot to giggle about, we were taken back out into real India. We had spent a day in a different world, a world of beauty, facade and excitement, overindulgence and money. And thats when it really made sense, that is exactly what Bollywood is meant to be, an escape from the harshness and realities of India. And I can attest to the fact that it works!
Location: Mumbai, India
Mumbai. Hot, sticky, smoggy. noisy, busy. The monsoon rains started yesterday, the day we arrived, but today it seems to have stopped again and the sun and heat are oppressive. Thank god we are not in Delhi where it is 45+ degrees!
Standing on the veranda of our hotel in the evening, across the street there are families bedding down for the evening. they have found a bit of awning to sleep under and seem peaceful until out of nowhere anther downpour of monsoon rain begins. They awake, drowsy, sleepily, move their bedding, a thin mat or newspaper, and try to find another bit of awning that isn't flooded by the windswept rain. in the family there is an old man, frail and broken, he is bent over and tired. as he tries to stand up to move out of the rain, his daughter or daughter in law helps him to move. she gently takes his arm and helps him to shuffle a few feet away is all he can seem to manage. he makes do with a half sheltered bed for the night and his daughter gently covers him with a blanket, their only one, to keep him warm. the patience and love of his daughter is overwhelming for me. imagine being able to care for someone so gently when you yourself are in a wretched, miserable, wet and exhausted state. while we sat on the verandah enjoyng the heavy downpour and the coolness it bought, there were many families struggling to find shelter in this city last night. many have a spot, an awing and a rug, but many sleep on the bare concrete, some just on the street with no shelter. The children vulnerable, tiny, being stepped over by passers by.
There is a hot debate here among travelers about giving money to the beggars in the street. some say don't some day do. i haven't made up my mind yet but the absolute poverty of these people is hard to ignore. i think what is so striking is that its not just that they are so desperately poor, but there are so many people who are so desperately poor. it is a little bit heart wrenching and something i didn't expect to feel so strongly about since I have traveled here before and experienced the similar sights and scenes of poverty.
Location: The Pyreneese, France
Well we did it, we cycled over the Pyrenees! It was surprisingly not that hard and no where near as tough as other days we have had. but it sure is beautiful:: riding into a town at the base of the mountains last night we could see the huge range of snow capped mountains looming overhead. This had me somewhat freightened of what lay ahead; after cycling up a good deal last night, we rose early this morning to get a good and early start to try to get over the tough bits before the sun got too hot; well the sun stayed perfectly bright but not hot and the tough buts never really came as we cycled about 30km uphill but didn't really feel it in the legs too much. i suppose i can put that down to the 4 weeks training we have had cycling all over very hilly Spain!
so we made it to the top, to 1500meters and felt very happy about this; then we literally rode down the other side for about another 30kms and then all of a sudden we cant speak the language or understand what people are on about or use the funny keyboards they have here in France. So strange to be in another country just like that; First stop was the patisserie for a well earned lunch and luckily Flint went in or sounds like i would have bought the whole shop out; Our first taste of delicious french bread.. yum and a bit of attitude from the lady at the tourist office as we couldn't speak french: Suppose there will be plenty more of that to come;
So now we are still riding down hill for a wee bit more I hope along a crystal clear rushing river with old french villas along the road and birds twittering away. Another beautiful cycling day with all the sights and smells and sunshine and cool breeze anyone could wish for.
So its off to find a camp spot near the town of Amelie and then we will be hitting the french books...
Location: Tortosa, Spain
From Granada to where.. i dont know where we are actually, some little town somewhere in Spain. There are a lot of them around here. Its one of my favourite things, cycling through the tiny villages that are all over the place. they are usually quaint and quiet, mostly deserted actually and i always wonder where is everyone?
We have had some pretty magical sites the last week or so. Staying in a national park where we went climbing i was competely taken with the beauty and precious gentleness of the tiny wild flowers contrasted with the huge cliffs that surrounded us. A family of wild mountian goats grazed across the way from us and at night it was so quiet the breeze in the trees was a wisper.
after that we were treated to one of the most beautiful cycling days i could have hoped for. Leaving camp as the sun was just over the horizon we cycled through winding, genlty sloping hills covered in grapes and olives with the rising sun just golden on the horizon. Gorgeous. a few kms and uphills later and we were surrounded by enormous limestone bluffs. We cycled down hill (awesome!) for about 20kms at least winding through terraced hills, more olive groves and old and beautifully crumbling rustic villages. Flint and I were both so awed by the beuaty of where we were and so grateful we were seeing it all on bike!
We attempted to see the coast, but trashy, overdeveloped and eerily deserted doesnt begin to describe what we found there. we decided to stick to the hills and moutnians and the tiny towns along the way. its worth the effort just for knowing that we are in Spain!
Its a funny life we´re leading at the moment. Just the two of us, spending a lot of time together and a lot more time on the bike. mostly cycling more than a 100km a day.. doing a lot of eating and a lot more riding! not having phones, internet showers for days! not knwoing where we will sleep for the night until we actually get there. feeling sticky with sunscreen and sweat all the time.. but loving the cold evenings, cooking dinner in sometimes really glorious camping spots. Flint laughed at me when i told him i couldnt decide if i liked lunchtime bettter or getting into the warm sleeping bag at the end of a long day ... im erring on the side of the sleeping bag still. there is nothing like getting into bed knowing you have totally earnt this rest!
But must remember to keep in touch with the world and whats really happening outside our little 4 wheeled gang.. though a bit of escapism has been mostly bliss!
Location: Granada, Spain
Cycling in Spain.. ah beautiful, little country roads, olive groves everywhere, endless rolling green hills and mountains, lots of mountians. I suppose they dont call it Andalucia for nothing! maybe we should have thought of that before we started this ride!! ah well..
feeling very much like we were in a Paulo Cohelo novel we set out from Sevilla just over a week ago now and cycled our way through gorgeous country side for a number of days, stopping to camp by the side of the road, mostly hidden from view, the first few nights were a bit odd, didnt sleep much at all. we didnt know if a spanish farmer was going to come and stake us out. Luckily that didnt happen!
on the third day we met another crazy cyclist from the USA, Benji, doing a similar trip. So then it was three and that was even better. After spending easter in el Chorro, a famous climbing spot and camping under the stars we headed for Granada. Little did we know the hills would be the death of us, well i thought so at least.. 50kms out we decided to stop cycling in the freezing wind and rain up these never ending hills and get a really nice euro train. It is a holiday after all!
So Granda here we are.. next stop the Alhambra and Churros and hot chocolate!