Friday, October 14, 2011

End of the road

My year-long adventure in India has come to an end. I'm writing this from Malaysia having left India from Chennai on Monday. I'm having a short, one week, mini-holiday in Malaysia and Singapore, then it's back to the UK at the beginning of next week.

It's easy to get really sentimental and “let's put my year in perspective” when you reach the end of a journey like this. But that's not really my style.....instead I'm going to write about the last festival I got to see before leaving India.

First, a small bit of background. India is a huge country (I was 400km from Kolkata, 1000km from Delhi. Delhi is 1000km from Kerala in the get the idea!) and more like a continent than a country. This means that a massive holiday in one part of the country can be completely ignored in another state. My state (Jharkhand) is mainly a Hindi state, but for various reasons it still celebrates the Bengali festival of Durga Pooja.

The Durga Pooja story is your basic hero / damsel in distress / villain story. Guy meets girl. Other guy wants girl. Other guy steals girl. 1st guy kills 2nd guy, wins back girl. Or something like that. For once, the story really isn't that relevent.

Durga Pooja is a huge deal in Bengali communities. Imagine combining Christmas, New Year's Eve and the Royal Wedding into the space of 3 days and you get somewhere close. There are 10 days of festivities, three days of official public holidays (although with the last one being Thursday, the Friday and Saturday are basically written off too!) and more food than even my boss could eat!

But, and it's a huge but, that's not even what makes Durga Pooja special. For that you have to go back five months. That's when the planning starts. Each community forms a committee and they start planning their particular celebration. Each community (and that basically would be each road in the UK) builds a Pandal – a temporary temple. Some of these are so big they take 1-2 months to build.

I was trying to think of a suitable comparison for this, and really couldn't come up with much. The best I could do was this – imagine, each year, you and all your neighbours got together and built the biggest Santa's Grotto you could. As did all of the other roads in your town. And all the other towns across the UK. And then everyone spent all night walking the streets visiting each grotto and there were competitions for the best ones. This happens – every. single. year.

It's actually amazing. I visited my bosses parent's house, about 10km outside Kolkata. (This isn't tourist central. It's “proper” India. The Pandals being built here are for the locals. I didn't see another white person in the 4 or 5 days I was there.) In one evening, walking the whole time (no buses or anything), for maybe two hours, we saw maybe nine different pandals. One was three stories high, a mountain with a temple perched on the top. One was a complete replica of a traditional village. In Ranchi there was one where all of the designs were made out of the small, wooden spoons you get with pots of ice cream! There was one totally decorated with children's toys. The creativity and originality is spectacular.

I had a brilliant time – it was a great way to end my time in India. I left Kolkata on the Thursday after an emotional farewell with Swapan and Rabin, boarding a train to Ranchi. On Friday I said goodbye to the rest of the Srijan family and hopped on my flight to Chennai to spend a weekend with my friend (thanks Phil!) and then on Monday morning it was goodbye to India.


I'll probably write another post when I get back, a few last thoughts as it were, but I just want to take an opportunity to say thank you to some people. One year is a long time to be away, but some people have really helped to make that easier for me and I'm eternally grateful.

Suzie – For putting up with my highs and lows (yes, there were some!), for not getting frustrated with dodgy Skype calls and lost internet connections, for always being there when I needed you (and for an amazing holiday!)
Mum, Dad and Kez – For being brave enough to come to India and open-minded enough to enjoy it, however hard it was.
Sam and Kate – For making it to Hazaribag!
Nan and Grandad – For the brilliant, brilliant letters – literally had me laughing out loud at times!
Rachel / Kieran / Hamish / Lex / Hannah / Carl / Vicky (and Megan!) – For the random emails/IMs throughout the year – you're all legends and I don't think you know how much they meant to me. I owe you all.


So, I'm back in the UK on Tuesday! I'll be in the Porterhouse (Covent Garden) from 6pm (ish) on Friday 21st so if anyone needs an excuse for a beverage on a Friday night feel free to drop in!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Putting Things in Perspective

Coming to India can be a massive culture shock. It's not like taking a holiday in the Algarve! So when my parents and sister said that they were going to come and visit me in India, I was apprehensive to say the least. Not because I didn't want them to come, but because none of them had ever travelled anywhere like India before and I wanted them to have a good holiday!

For various reasons, my family were flying into Delhi and doing the “touristy” bits around that part of India (Taj, etc) and then I was going to fly to meet them and we were all flying down to Kerala together for a week. This made me even more nervous – I wouldn't even be there to greet them in Delhi and help them settle in!

This blog isn't going to be about Kerala (although I'm chucking in some pics of the place!  We stayed in Cochin, which is a lovely little town btw). Instead, I want to talk about the reaction of my family and why I think it's so important....

This blog has been my record (of a sort) of my time in India. It's not a 100% detailed account – it's the stuff I think people will find interesting / amusing / thought provoking. My natural style is to make light of things, paint things in a funny light and to be generally positive. The end result was that it was a bit of an eye-opener for my family when they hit Delhi....

I live in Hazaribag. I talk about the power cuts, the muddy roads, the cows in the road. People laugh, they think – wow, rural India must be pretty bizarre to live in. The thing is – Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai – they aren't that much different. By western standards they're dirty, loud, chaotic and pretty intimidating. There is poverty everywhere you look, and it can be quite distressing. People will try and rip you off because you're white. There is little “tourist infrastructure”, public transport is almost unintelligible and the majority of people speak only rudimentary English.

My family stayed (for the most part) in western hotels. Marriotts etc. These places are like little bubbles. They aren't India. Staying in them means you miss out on so much of what makes India brilliant (or, more specifically, makes it brilliant for me!), but perhaps more importantly, they enable you to forget the country that you are in. In these hotels there is the hot running shower, the mini-bar and the spotlessly clean bathrooms. If you put the hotel in England it would be luxurious – in India? It's like a completely different planet.

I think this made the experience even more extreme for my family – the contrast between the life in the hotel and the life outside of the four walls of their rooms. That might have led to them enjoying the experience less than if they'd stayed in a more “authentic” place, I don't know. But I do know that they're now far more aware of the living conditions for the vast majority of this country's 1.3bn population.

I am so proud of my family for coming to India. I know it was a huge step outside of their comfort zone and I respect them hugely for doing that. I've travelled to a lot of places off of the beaten track, which made it much easier to adapt to life here. I think that also when you know that you're in a place for a long period like I am, you force yourself to take a different perspective on obstacles. You can't do that as easily when you're only in a country for two weeks.

I had a fantastic week in Kerala and I hope my family enjoyed it as much as I did. I have a feeling that it will be a holiday they won't forget for a long time and hopefully it's been one that they will look back on and be glad that they did!