Tuesday, August 30, 2011

An (almost) English Tea Party

As I'm sure most of you will have seen from Facebook, Monday was my birthday. As another reminder that I'm actually not that young (well, physically anyway – we all know I'll never get past the age of about 19 mentally) any more, I thought about how to celebrate this stunning milestone here in India.

One of the most important aspects of volunteering is a sharing of cultures. Not only do I get to experience living in rural India, but the people I work and live with get to hear about (and see) a lot of the aspects of life in England.

So with that in mind, what could be more appropriate than an English Tea Party for my birthday?!? I invited all of the office, my landlords and a few of my friends from Hazaribag promising a plethora of European food and party games. I had no idea if anyone would actually turn up, or whether they would enjoy any of the stuff I was making, but I figured at least I'd have something to do with my Sunday!

Flapjack-y goodness
So Saturday night, I got to work. First up was the flapjacks and the chocolate rice krispie cakes. (Disclaimer – Rice Krispies a la Mr Kellogg are not actually available, but puffed rice is sold everywhere as a savoury snack). I was initially hindered by a power cut (bet Delia never has to deal with these conditions, mum!) but was pretty happy with the results.

Don't tell Mr Kellogg.

Spanish omelette. Loved by Indians everywhere....
Sunday, I was up bright and early – I had a lot to do. First was boiling up the chickpeas for my homemade hummus. Although they love chickpeas here, pre-cooked ones haven't caught on! Then it was time for some steamed pudding, followed by a Spanish omelette.

Side note – Indians love spanish omelettes. I have no idea why, but from the first time I mentioned one, they've been obsessed with it in my office. I realise that neither hummus nor the omelette are English, but sod it. It's my party and I'll cook what I want to! (Or, more accurately, what I can with the ingredients available and a two hob stove.....)

Steamed Raisin Pudding. Oh yes!
I then had a last minute request for mashed potato from Dharamraj....it didn't matter that we really had nothing to eat it with. So alongside the hummus and various veg for dipping, sat a lovely dollop of “smashed potato”.

Finally, a huge plate of jam sandwiches (I think this fully restores the English-ness of the occasion to be honest...) and we were ready. Biscuits and crisps were added to the table, banana smoothie and fizzy drinks joined them.

Everyone loves musical sheets-of-paper-on-the-floor...
Then I got worried that no-one would turn up....I'd made a LOT of food!

Luckily lots of people did. We ate a lot of food, we listened to music (Western and Indian!), we witnessed the brutality of a father cheating his son in a game of Musical Chairs and we had some Indian dancing. The Moonwalk may have made an appearance....

We have a winner!

 Towards the end of the party, for reasons that were completely beyond me considering the amount of food I'd made, they decided we needed to have some Indian food as well and someone was dispatched to, well, er, dispatch, a chicken. At various points in the process I think everyone in the group got involved in cooking and made their own additions in terms of spices, salt and pepper (I admit to feeling proud that I had 90% of the ingredients they asked for!). So, my English Tea Party took a distinctly Indian turn towards the end of the evening!

Hamburger cocktail sticks and chicken curry. Obviously.

It was a great day, I had a lot of laughs, as I think the pics show. A few factoids for you all:
  • Musical Chairs winner – Babita
  • Favourite Dish – Spanish Omelette. If it had been a boxing match, this contest would have been stopped in the first round. There was none left within about 15mins!
  • Best dancer – Sanjit
  • Best present – the Hamburger-styled cocktail sticks

So, another birthday down. Next year is a biggie (30). I wonder where I'll be for that one..... ;-)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Independence Day in Jharkhand

As many of you will know, I'm a big Will Smith fan. Sorry to report, however, that this is not a post about watching Big Willie kick some alien butt on July 4th. Monday (15th August) was Independence Day in India – celebrating the end of the British Rule over the country. Obviously this is a pretty important date in the National calendar and as such it is a national holiday.

I was invited to attend an event at one of our project sites – Kuju. Kuju is a small mining village between Hazaribag and Ranchi (the capital of Jharkhand). Our organisation work to help children in the village and the surrounding areas continue with their education – providing schools for children who have had to leave government schools early, providing vocational learning etc. There is also a residential school for girls so that their parents can work and the children can stay in education.

We travelled up to Kuju by bus and arrived shortly after 9am. As we came up to the school, Mukesh, who I had come with, noticed that there was already a group of people in the field outside the school, so we went straight over to that.

Sanjit (our Project Co-ordinator) and Mukesh (another Co-ordinator) were busy erecting a flag-pole, the base of which had been decorated with various coloured paints. The children were milling around, waiting for the main event. After 30-45 minutes, Swapan (our Secretary) and a local politican turned up and the ceremony began.

The ceremony was fairly short – the national flag was hoisted, a couple of songs sung, a short speech and we were done. Back into the school we went and I was intrigued to find out what the rest of the day held in store....

Instead of going into the office however, we went up onto the roof of the building. Here they were busy erecting a marquee and PA system. We were going to have some entertainment! I took the opportunity to take a fair few photos – some good, some bad!

The rest of the morning until lunch was taken up with a variety show by the children of the school. It was good fun – lots of singing, dancing and some sketches as well. The children all had a competition to do a drawing of Independence Day and I got involved in the judging. It was like India's Got Talent! (I realise this makes me Simon Cowell – I'm not pleased about it)

One amusing custom was that when we gave out the prizes at the end of the day, after collecting their gift all of the children kept trying to touch the feet of the prize-giver – me included! Cue a load of bizarre dancing/jumping on all our parts and trying to catch the children before they could do it. I didn't get a chance to ask about it, but it's obviously some form of subservience / deference.

It's also not the only circumstance in which this happens. If you bump into someone's foot, the immediate reaction is to touch their foot with your hand and to make a kind of mini-sign of the cross – touching the forehead and chest. It's almost instinctive for most people and the closest we have to it in the UK would be someone saying “bless you” if a person sneezes I guess. (Something that Indians find hilarious by the way, especially when I explained the origins as being from the Black Death and basically implying that the person is going to die....)

After the presentations, we had one final dance routine, which took ages as the PA system couldn't play track 7 on the CD. We kept getting the same intro to a different song again, and again, and again, and again! Mind you, the equipment they were using looked older than my dad's old Technics equipment, which probably means it was made around 1980 or something, so a few hiccups is probably allowed!

After the show we had some lunch and I distributed the sweets I'd brought from the UK (Wine Pastilles, Jelly Babies and Haribo!). I say distributed, everyone in the room got a couple and then Swapan packed the rest into his bag to “share” with Rajiv and the others later....yet to see any evidence of that one!

After lunch it was back to Hazaribag for the afternoon. It was nice to see a country proud of it's nationality. In the UK the St. George's flag has unfortunately come to represent hooliganism and football yobs to many people – displaying it is not always seen as a proud thing to do. The fact that the whole nation here stops to remember their country is a really inspiring thing.

On a separate note, a few weeks ago I took some photos down by the Jheel (where I go jogging in the morning) as the sun was setting. The day before had actually been even more beautiful, but there you go. It's a nice reminder that Hazaribag is actually a pretty beautiful place in some parts (when it's not raining and muddy and damp and mouldy like it is now!).

As ever, more pics over on the Flickr site if you're interested....

Monday, August 15, 2011

Getting Back on Track

India can be a confusing and over-whelming country. I should know – I've been here 8 months! Except, those 8 months tend to blind you to some of the country's eccentricities. Things that might have left you gob-smacked at the start of your placement, drift over you with barely a ripple being seen.

So with that in mind, the next week will be especially interesting, as I've just got back from a week back in the UK for a friend's wedding. Obviously the most important part of that was seeing Mike get married and catching up with the family, but I found it interesting how quickly I cast off my recent history and fell back into my previous habits and thought patterns.

Some simple examples:
  • having a coffee in a cafe
  • going to the pub
  • washing your toothbrush with tap water
  • plumbing (including “Western” toilets and drains!)
  • queueing
This might seem like a pretty inconsequential list, but this is more of a list of things you notice when you get back to the UK. The heavy-hitting comes when you get back to India. Seeing people selling a handful of vegetables off of some rags in the road. Collecting rain water from tarpaulins to drink. Litter everywhere.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's easy to get “acclimatised” to these things. And that this isn't a good thing. It's important to keep some perspective – and that is difficult to do when this level of poverty is staring you in the face everyday....and you're effectively part of it.

In the UK, Suzie and I spent two days in the country pub/hotel for the wedding and spent £200 on our bill, even though breakfast was included, a lot of the drinks at the wedding were free and we skipped lunch one of those days. £200 in two days. That's two months wages for some of the project managers I work with here - and they are relatively well off. That has to provide a roof for them and their families. Pay for food, school and everything else.

I had an amazing time in Oxford. I saw one of my best friends get married in a fantastic wedding, I saw Suzie. I saw a lot of my family. Funnily enough though, the biggest plus might be the impact it has on me here in India in helping me to keep a sense of perspective and focus on what I'm doing here.