Ruth's Orissa Blog

Working with SOVA Koraput, a grass roots charity in Orissa, India

Field Trip

I have just come back from two very enlightening days in the field.  Yesterday and the day before I headed out on field trips to some very remote tribal villages to see the work that was being done in these communities to help improve the livelihoods of the people.

The first place that we went to was over 3 hours North of Vishakhapatnam.  The first two hours of our journey went through towns and villages, interspersed with fields, but the last hour took us into the Eastern Ghats and the roads soon turned to pot-hole filled dirt tracks.  We were informed that the preceding 10-15 Km had previously been just as pot-holed a couple of years ago, and the journey used to take 2.5 hours by motor bike, almost the same amount of time as it would take to walk, and the total journey time for someone walking  the 25km to market from one of the remote villages we were heading to, was around 5 hours.

And many people do make this journey on foot, because even the few rupees it costs to take a ride on a shared jeep is prohibitive, but if they want to bring any produce they have to sell at market then they have no other choice.  It is no mean making this journey in searing temperatures.  I am currently getting up for a run at 6am and by the time I get back around 7am it is already getting pretty damn hot.  A few hours later and you don’t want to do anything other than seek the shade, so even if you set off at 4.30am you still won’t get to market until around 9.30-10am.

As we were making the field trip on a Sunday, which is market day, we passed a lot of the said ‘shared vehicles’ that were taking people to town.  To say that the jeeps were overloaded is just a pinch of an understatement.  There was hardly an inch of the jeeps that weren’t covered in human bodies.  An average vehicle had at least 2 people on the passenger seat not including the two or three children, the driver generally had a small child on his knee and then the back of the jeep consisting of two side benches with a corridor in the middle must have had around 10 or more people inside.  And that is just inside the vehicle.

The roof was covered was also covered as was the bonnet of the jeep to the extent that many jeeps have no driver door and the drivers sit on the edge of their seat instead lean out so that they can see out the side of the vehicle because the  the windscreen is generally ubstructed by people (this also allows another person to sit on the seat with him…).

When we reached the village we were greeted by the community and given reports on the work that had been done there.  Kovel had only been working with them a short time, but already Village Development Committees (VDCs), Farmers Clubs (FCs) and women’s Self Help Groups (SHGs).

The local groups were really taking form, coming up with innovative ideas on their own to solve problems that previously would have had little resolve and would have caused ange or upset e.g. the problem of cattle roaming around and eating crops.  This has been stopped by a fine of 500 Rs (a considerable sum for a poor farmer) being levied on anyone who’s animals have been found roaming around and eating crops.  Since the fine has been imposed after the first couple of people were forced to pay it hasn’t been a problem since!

We were shown round the fields and saw how farmers had planted teak and Kovel trees around the edges of their 1 acre plots of land.  We also saw the water saving farming practices that Kovel had taught the farmers, allowing crops to grow just as well but with very little water wastage.  This was achieved by drip feeding plants by filling a clay bowl that has a small hole in the bottom and placing it at the root of the plant.  Previously watering methods meant that a lot of evaporation took place wasting water but the new method means that stored water can last longer into the dry season.

It is simple techniques like this that can make huge differences to communities, and can even mean the difference between crop success or failure.  Everywhere we went communities welcomed us with open arms and obviously held great respect for Kovel, in fact in one community we arrived and were showered with flower garlands, serenaded, received a dance performance and had a model showing Kovel farming practices made in our honour!  This was a good day.

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Kovel Foundation

So I have been placed with Kovel Foundation for the next three months, and in the first week of joining have already gained a great impression of the organisation and also been given some really interesting (and daunting) tasks to complete!

Kovel, like SOVA, works with tribal people, but Kovel is much more focussed in its remit, concentrating its expertise on helping tribal groups increase their incomes through improved farming practices and Non Timber Forest Product (NTFP) collection.  Kovel works with tribal people, helping to increase their income generating capacity by training communities in scientific farming techniques that can increase their yields, improve the quality of their land and reduce their outgoing expenses on things such as seeds and fertilisers and chemical pesticides.

The organisation specialises in NTFP management and helps tribal communities collect some of the 24 different NTFPs that the organisation has identified.  With improved techniques, communities can increase their incomes 2 or even 3 fold in under a year.

As well as short term returns facilitated by improving collection techniques, Kovel also focusses on long term development plans, encouraging farmers to plant trees that although may take 10 or 20 years to establish, will provide financial security for their children and future generations.

Kovel works not only to increase the incomes generated by families but to improve the strength of communities by helping to establish community groups to enable people living in remote areas to lobby government and demand the same rights as others living in areas where they are able to attract more attention.

Kovel is now looking to expand the work it is doing in communities to become more holistic.  Martin and I will be working over the coming months to conduct research in existing and new communities to understand the health, social and education needs of communities as well as their livelihood requirements.  This research will then feed into future proposals that Kovel makes to expand their area of remit to help improve the educational attainment and health levels of people living in rural areas.

Exciting times are ahead!

Hello Vizag!

So I have been settling into my new home in Vizag nicely, thank you very much.  I am now living in a small community to the North of the city called Sagarnagar, a little place that has just the right amount of everything you need on a day-to-day basis.  There is a dairy stand for milk and curd (yoghurt), a morning dhaba (cheap café) for dosas, idly and poori, the standard breakfast fare of South India, and a lunch time dhaba (affectionately known as Dave’s because we can’t pronounce the owner’s name despite numerous attempts) for the ubiquitous Indian thali, one veg stall, a couple of generally grocery stalls, a couple of chemists and a plethora of snacks and fizzy drinks stands.

Work is a five minute walk away, my boss Mr Rao and a work colleague, Haima, live diagonally opposite us and buses and auto rickshaws can take us into the city centre in 15 minutes.

Oh, and did I mention the beach? Yeah, you can see the sea from the roof of our block of flats and it is a few minutes walk to the shore.  I am up between 6.00 and 6.30am every morning to go for a walk or jog and am hopefully starting horseriding next week which will involve beach rides!

I live in a flat with Laurence, Frodi and Martin, and share a bedroom with Martin.  I am not sure what the neighbours think, but I am pretty sure that they are quite bemused by the situation and/or think I am married to one of the boys.

The flat is pretty basic, but suits our needs fine, particularly now that the light switches that sparked and sometimes burned when we turned them on have been replaced!  We have not one but two balconies to the front and rear, a small kitchen with a hob and a fridge (and lots of ants that try and get into everything) a squat toilet, ‘bathroom’ that basically has a massive water butt that collects water during the one hour the water is turned on every day that we then carry to the kitchen (which has no working taps) and toilet (which has no flush). ‘Showers’ comprise of chucking cold water over your head using a jug , but are pretty refreshing very desirable as the weather continues to notch up and up.

We have fans to keep us cool, although powercuts are frequent and irregular, so it can get pretty sweaty when the fans are out of action!

Irregualar powercuts also mean that we find ourselves in the middle of cooking, or having a bath when the lights cut out, which can make for interesting dinners and complicated drying and dressing processes!

We are all settling in nicely though and getting acquainted with the neighbourhood and all the people, cows and stray dogs that inhabit it.  It is even starting to feel a little like home J.

All Change!

It is all change in the world of Ruth!  For the last 3 months I have been based in Koraput, Orissa, working with SOVA, South Orissa Voluntary Action, writing reports and teaching in a local school twice a week.

As a team leader I have been based in India for 6 months, while the other volunteers have had 3 month placements.  In between the time that the first volunteer group left and the next group arrived we found ourselves with a couple of weeks free time, so myself and another team leader, Martin, who had been working in Vishakhapatnam decided to take a holiday to the Andaman Islands while we waited for our new volunteers.

During that period things changed.  Just a little bit.  For one thing it has been decided that I am no longer going to live in Koraput, Orissa, but have been now been moved to Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh (AP) to work with Martin!

Why? The reason that I have been moved is due to a ‘security situation’ in Orissa, namely that over the course of two weeks two Italian travellers and one Indian member of parliament, were abducted in the state of Orissa by Naxalite (Maoist) rebels.  One of these abductions took place in the district that I was living in, so just be be on the safe side Skillshare has decided that I should probably not go back, considering the fact that I stick out like a sore thumb being one of only 4 other Westerners within at least a 100 mile radius.

Now that is not to say I was in any real great danger. The Italians were in very remote tribal areas taking pictures when they shouldn’t have been and the other person was a government official, and normally the Naxalites leave NGO workers alone, as they realise that they are trying to do something good.  Another thing to consider is that although one kidnapping took place in my district the other two kidnappings happened hundreds of miles away.  Finally the state of Orissa is the size of the UK with a similar population, so the odds of anything happening were slim.

So what next?  Well, as luck would have it my volunteers have been able to be placed with other groups based in India, and I have been placed with team Vizag!  So from small town India, population 20,000, I am moving to the bright lights of the big city smoke of Vishakhaptnam, population 2 million!

Having the opportunity to get involved two different organisations doing different kinds of projects and getting the chance to experience life in two different locations is a great chance to get a rounded idea of India and its many facets.

Also, living five minutes from the beach and having a few more amenities on hand, like a cinema that shows English language films and some restaurants where I can get my pasta fix at is tough, but I think I will manage it!

Community Spirit

I know it is cliché, but it is amazing to see the sense of community in some of the villages that we have visited as part of our work at Kovel.  It is inspiring to see people pull together in times of need, and celebrate in times of joy.

The villages we have visited have ranged from small hamlets comprising only 4 or 5 families to much more established communities holding around 40-50 households.  These are tight nit communities where everyone knows everyone and most people have grown up with eachother and know everything about everyone else’s business.

Households can comprise of several generations and grandparents often live within the family home and help take care of the younger children.  Houses regularly only have one room where everyone lives, sleeps and cooks together, so personal space is not something that many people in these villages have ever experienced!

Neighbours and other villagers live in close proximity and everyone knows everyone else’s business.  Some people may find this idea very claustrophobic, but it also has its benefits, with the entire community looking out for one another when problems arise.

On a recent field trip to visit some villages that were engaged in the projects that we are running, we were welcomed by the entire village when we arrived.  Seeing the men playing music together, the women dancing with one another, and being received with garlands made communaly by the women was really special for us.

The entire village had also obviously worked together to sweep and tidy the village in honour of our visit and there was an obvious sense of pride felt by everyone who lived there.  They villagers had also worked together to construct a model representing the different crops they were growing at different times of the year using methods they had been taught by Kovel, depicted through making a ‘wheel of life’ on the ground.  All in all the effort was tremendous, touching and very obviously the work of a community with strong bonds and communal spirit.

Perhaps I have just been very lucky an this kind of experience is not wholly representative of every Indian village.  Maybe this community spirit is in part a result of the work that Kovel has done to build up Village Development Committees (VDCs) and Self Help Groups (SHGs) coupled with good village leadership, but by in large I think this is representative of the cooperation that is played out in many, at least rural, locales.

A typical feature of a village like this is that the whole village clubs together when someone is getting married or dies, with the whole community sharing the burden of the cost, as the debts incurred are often beyond the means of just one family. This happens on the understanding that when the time comes for someone else to need help everyone else will be there for them too.If someone is sick then the community will help the family that is struggling to do the work required on their fields etc.

You can really see how well people know eachother and how much love there is there in the way they sit together, talk together, lean on one another and laugh.  It is such a shame that communities in the UK have by and large lost this community spirit, in a World where a large proportion of people don’t even know their own neighbours.

Holy Holi!

Last week India celebrated the festival of Holi, a festival that literally expldoes with colour!  During Holi many Hindus enjoy a day of carefree craziness by throwing coloured powders and water at each other so that the streets become a scene of rainbow explosions, and men, women and children dart about attacking eachother in a scene of gay abandon.

India,  usually a country of strict reservation, where girls and boys are expected to be meek and respectful, seems to throw the rule book out the window on this occasion as the sexes mix and people let their hair down.

The festival takes its origins from several sources, but first and foremost it commemorates the survival of Prahlad, a strong devotee of Vishnu, who survived many attacks from his own father who had grown arrogant when he was made invincible through a boon made that protected him from death.  His father began demanding that people worship him rather than the Gods and when Prahlad refused to stop worshiping Vishnu his father ordered him to death.  Each time a murder attempt was made he survived and this culminated in Prahlad being asked to sit on a pyre in the lap of Holika, a demoness who could not die because she had been granted a boon not to die by fire.  When the pyre was lit it was the demoness who burned and not Prahlad however, as Vishnu was protecting him.  And so Holi came from the word Holika.

The festival also celebrates the end of winter and the coming of spring and all the colour and blooms that arrive during this period.  It falls every year on the last full moon of the lunar month Phalunga.

As Holi is celebrated more in the North of India than in the South we headed North to Hyderabad to with some other volunteers from Vishakhapatnam so that we could get the full force of this festival of colours.  And experience the full force we did!

Arriving in Hyderabad we went to meet a friend of one of the volunteers who lived in Hyderabdad called Cheri.  Cheri, who grew up in Cochin in Kerala was as excited as us to get involved because having grown up in the South he had never had the opportunity to play himself.  We went to Cheri’s place, quickly changed into white clothes, a tradition of Holi, in order to show up the colours better.

Just before we left the apartment Martin and Matt, the boys from Vishakaphatnam produced a bag with super soakers and water balloons to use and suddenly we felt a lot more prepared to hit the streets!

After an initial false start we  started seeing the first signs of Holi in the streets as the occasional motorbike drove past with brightly coloured passengers.  Much to the delight of many (and consternation of more than one) we started to open fire on these bikes with our water guns, entering into open combat with our super soakers filled with brightly coloured powder paints and water.

Soon we were fully involved in the action and were invited to a Holi street party where  the local kids (and adults) took great joy in smearing us with colours and throwing water over our heads. Not long after the press arrived and start papping us,  and five minutes of fame were ours!

We continued on, stalking through the streets, meeting other parties and getting involved in the action.  The mixture of joy and fear that we were met with on our journeys was great.  People either fully embrace or avoid it like the plague.  The number of business men in starched white shirts who gave us a wide birth was tangible!

Over the course of 4-5 hours we made lots of new friends, and probably a few enemies, got covered from head to toe in colour and had some of the best fun I have had in India ever.  The only downside being that for the following 2 weeks I was still trying to get rid of the remaining dye from my hair and crevices!

Holi you have been a highlight so far!

General Class? General Hell!

Attempting to return home from Puri we knew already that the only train available (there is only 1 train per day to Koraput) was fully booked.  Most trains are fully booked at least a week before departure in India, which makes spontaneous travel a little less feasible in this country, unless you are willing to take buses, as we soon found out.

Buses may usually be faster, but when you are covering such long distances on transport made for people shorter than 5 foot 5, driven by crazy drivers who believe that the will of God will determine whether you reach your destination dead or alive so he doesn’t need to worry about that,  and on such mental, bumpy, often twisty-turny, cow-filled roads, I can guarantee that you want to get a train if humanly possible.

The dude from the restaurant we had visited (he was definitely a dude because I had earlier seen him spark up a massive bifter (marijuana, or bhang, as it is locally known, is legal in Puri, and they even have a government bhang shop) suggested that we should get on in general class (the non-seat allocated coach, where it is every man/woman/child and random domestic or undomestic animal for himself) and then find the ticket collector to see if there were people who had not turned up for their seats so that we could pay the upgrade to get into sleeper class (with an obvious bit of backshish, or bribe money, thrown in for good measure).

This seemed like such a great idea at the time.  We knew there was a train going through, but as we knew from previous experience, buses may have been full up meaning we were stuck in Bhubaneswar, so it seemed so plausible at the time that we could just jump on the train and then upgrade.  Surely someone on the train wouldn’t be able to make the journey and would have forfeited their seat?  WRONG!

We got to the junction to catch the connecting train and met some other people travelling general class who hadn’t been able to get sleeper class tickets, when we asked about how likely it was we would get places they didn’t look very hopeful.  You see the thing is that there is also something called ‘waiting list’ in India, and people can return their tickets for a small fee, and most do, unlike in the UK when it usually is easier to buy a new ticket.  People can’t afford to just give up their tickets or miss trains the way we do, so for the most part if someone buys a ticket, they are going to use it.

The Indian booking system is also very finely tuned, so when a family gets off the train at their destination at 3 o’clock in the morning during a train journey, a new family will generally get on at the same stop and take their positions up.  This is all well and good in terms of efficiency, but not so good if you are facing a 14 hour overnight journey.

So what did this mean for us?  Well it meant that we had a loooooong night ahead of us.

When we got on the train we got even more stares than usual.  Basically if you can afford to go in a different class than general, then you generally do!  So a couple of Westerners in general class was indeed a bit of a strange sight to be seen.  Everyone was really sweet though and budged up so we could have an edge of seat.

In sleeper class people generally sit  3 or 4 to a bench, but in general class 6-7 is a more common figure.  And then there are the overhead luggage racks.  The more spritely young men generally leap into those at the first opportunity so that they can get horizontal and have the vague chance of some sleep.  The rest of us would have to make do with upright dozing and try to hope not to end up drooling on the shoulder of the complete stranger sat next door.  No-one is a stranger by the end.  There is a definite sense of camaraderie in general class, a bit like all that WWII chat about people pulling together in tough times.  We were all in it together until the bitter end!

There were a couple of English speakers that we got chatting to, and one older man who was with his son who was determined to look after us/force feed us throughout the journey.

There wasn’t much sleeping to be had.  No position is ever comfortable and the wipe down leather-effect bench is not the kindest on the posterieur, even the more generously padded ones such as mine.

After the first six hours it starts to get uncomfortable, after the next 6 you wonder if standing wouldn’t be a better idea, or perhaps being suspended by your ankles bat-style.  About ten hours into our journey both Shri and I managed to upgrade to the covetted window seats, covetted because you can lean your head against the wall rather than trying to sleep bolt upright, or with your head on your own lap (believe me this is easier said than done, I spent several hours alternating between each position).  By this stage though, I don’t think sleep was ever really going to happen.

The final hours of the journey were the most beautiful part.  We were slowly ascending the hill up to Koraput as the sun was rising, and the scenery really was beautiful.  Unfortunately sleep deprivation coupled with early morning chill meant that most of it was lost on us, particularly as the train decided to do what Indian trains do best, stop at a random stop in the middle of nowhere for half an hour for no particular reason.  Indian trains excel at this.

We eventually pulled into Koraput 14.5 hours later.   Unfortunately it was Monday morning, so instead of getting into bed and sleeping, we headed straight to the office to start work!  Aaaaaah the joys of the life as a volunteer abroad!

Orissa adventuring

As our time in India is short, we have been packing a lot into the weekends in the hope of seeing at least a small portion of this vast country.  Although most people in India only get Sundays off (people don’t ask you how your weekend was, they ask you how your Sunday was) and even school children attend for a half day on Saturdays, our CEO has been kind enough to grant us full weekends, a necessary permission if you want to see anything, as even the closest of trips are at least 7-8 hours away!

Last weekend we went to Chilika lake, a beautiful lagoon situated along the coast South of Puri and North of Vishakapatnam.  This lake is home to hundreds of bird species, including many brightly coloured kingfishers, as well as the extremely rare Irawaddy doplhin.  This dolphin is nearing extinction and is found in only one location in India, one being the very lake that we were heading to.

We took a bus on Friday evening from Koraput and arrived in the early hours to Balugaon, a small town on the edge of the lagoon.  We caught an auto (motor rickshaw) to the lakeside where many small wooden boats with outboard motors were moored.  Only one boat leaves each morning at 7am to Satapada, and one boat back, and luckily we arrived around 10 minutes before the boat was set to sail.  After the boat was loaded up with people and goods (as with most forms of Indian transport, there seems to be no limit to numbers other than the point when people are falling off/the boat is sinking) we set off on a three hour journey across the lake.  It was a truly amazing journey, setting off into the morning mist across water that was completely calm. All that we encountered along the way were fishing boats with makeshift tarpaulin sails and birds that swooped overhead.

When we arrived at our destination we walked the short distance from the jetty to our government run hotel, seemingly the only hotel in Satapada.  Needless to say that the photos on the tourism website did not match up to the reality in front of us.  Terms like ‘faded charm’ would be the poetic way of describing things, more appropriate perhaps would be ‘could do with a lick of paint’.

After signing our names in triplicate and giving information such as the name of our first pet, our favourite colour and the number of times we have attempted to fart the theme tune to Eastenders (Indian bureaucracy is actually almost as bad as this) we were finally sent to our room where we could sit and look out the window onto the gardens of the hotel including the large tree full of fighting monkeys.

After a quick scrub we headed out in search of dolphins.  Luckily there is a fixed price cooperative of boat owners that take you out on excursions.  This saved the hastle of the usual haggle that is necessary to avoid being completely ripped off, although in a way I almost felt a bit put out that I didn’t get the chance to enter into the usual role play.  On the other hand at least if you are paying above the odds, then so is everyone else!

On the water we almost immediately saw a shape in the water in the distance.  The back or tail of a dolphin was often seen some way off, and they definitely seemed to be playing hard to get, but just as we were heading back home a dolphin appeared right in front of our boat so that we could almost reach out and touch it.  Pretty special!

Irawaddy dolphins are similar to the ‘normal’ type of dolphin that we are all familiar with, the main differences however are that the Irawaddy dolphin has a much more snubbed nose, and actually relate a lot more closely to the orca, or killer wale, and traditionally have been found in brackish waters.  These dolphins are known for their cooperative existence with humans with reports from various locations of their work driving fish towards fishing nets that has resulted in them being rewarded with by catch.  This symbiotic relationship has also been their downfall with many dolphins getting caught up in gillnets and dragnets. leading to a sharp decline in numbers.

Tourism is hopefully helping locals understand the value of these mammals and there have been moves to protect them at Chilika lake, but more still needs to be done to ensure that they don’t become extinct.

Satapada itself is a pretty sleepy little place with little else to do there.  The place seemed to be made up of the hotel we were staying in, a couple of dhabas (cheap eating places) and a few shops selling thumbs up cola (look in to this) and crisps.

We took a walk along the only road there was and passed by the village that was a little further out.  These places look so nice and seem so clean in comparison to the towns.  Although there is still plastic detritous littering the ground, everywhere is swept clean and all the houses, most of which are made from locally fired mud bricks and then covered in a muddy kind of render topped off with thick thatch, seemed really quaint.

I am sure that the reality is a little less pretty though.  The harsh elements and combinations of searing heat and then torrential monsoons means that buildings take a pretty hard bashing.  Thatch and the like attracts insects and other pests and often there is poor ventilation.

Things are pretty bloody basic in rural villages too, and for the people living there, and for many it can be quite boring.  No books, no tv or computers, little stimulation of any kind.  There is plenty of work for people to be getting on with a lot of the time though, fetching water from the pump (if there is one) collecting fire wood, tending to crops if you are an agriculturalist.  Indeed many kids don’t go to school because they need to help their parents with work.  Often, even if they do go to school their teachers aren’t there because there are few checks made on attendance of either teachers or students in rural areas, and most local people don’t know how to complain, or who to complain to.

In Koraput, where we are working, these are some of the issues that SOVA tries to address.  Currently they are setting up an automated system where locals can phone using STD call stations (basically a dude with a phone that you pay to make a call, a bit like a manned payphone) or text using your mobile phone, both for free.  There are also weekend grievance surgeries that have been set up in local villages so that people can come and talk to someone about any issues they are facing, e.g. a water pump is broken, a portion of road is being continually flooded, they are not receiving their benefits, a teacher is continually not turning up to work etc.  Hopefully this will help empower people and give people, that are often ignored or forgotten, a voice.

After our jaunt around the town we retired to our hotel, planning to go and sit in the garden, but only made it as far as our beds before passing out for several hours.  On awakening we discovered that it gets pretty dark outside and the front gates of the hotel seemed to have been closed.  Virtually imprisoned we settled down to an evening of room service and monopoly.  Obviously I am too much of an anti-capitalist, because Shri whipped my ass!

In the morning we discovered that there is only one boat back across the lake at 2pm, and as we hadn’t organised our return bus and didn’t know if they would be booked, we made the obvious decision of heading in the opposite direction that we needed to go by taking a two and a half hour bus to Puri (a seaside town that is home to one of the biggest pigrimage sites in India, the Jagganarth temple).

The journey was really beautiful, taking us through rural backwaters with lush paddy fields, full of herons, kingfishers and water buffaloes and past haystacks and brick making kilns and other scenes of rural life.

On arriving in Puri we discovered that of course the Jagganarth temple is closed to non-Hindus, but also that the viewing platform (the top of a local library) where non-Hindus are normally able to get a glimpse of the inside activities, was also closed as it was a Sunday.  We also discovered that there were no direct buses back to Koraput but that we would have to go to Bhubaneswar (1.5 hours away) first.  Needless to say we decided to worry about these mere details later and instead made our way to the beach.

When we arrived at the beach it was quite exciting to see some other foreigners.  Living in Koraput, where you are the only westerners for a couple of hundred miles radius, it is almost surreal going to a place where you don’t stand out like a shining white beacon.  Don’t get me wrong, Puri is no centre of tourism by any means, but it isn’t such a novelty for local the local people to see you, and you don’t get quite so many stares or over excited children running up to tell you their two words of English (normally ‘chocolate’ given as a command word, or ‘hello’).

Despite the fact that we had just taken 2.5 hours to get here and were probably only going to get about 2.5 hours in Puri before we had to leave, this was bliss.

Sun, sea, sand, chips, ice coffee(!), bleedin Norah, we had arrived!  Swimming did not take place on this occasion, as swimming in India where there are lots of Indian tourists, male or female, means that showing any flesh whatsoever is a definite no no.  All along the beach there were whole families getting into the water, men, women and children, but they were doing so in full saris etc.  Indians don’t generally swim either. People like to splash about but but hardly anyone learns to swim.  Try and imagine swimming classes for girls, it just couldn’t really happen, they would all sink under the weight of their clothes!

I have seen many a naked small boy swimming about in rivers as I have passed by on buses or trains, but I am not sure how many of those children can possibly have made it through to adulthood due to the general look and consistency of the water!

Public swimming pools don’t really exist in India either, generally water is at a premium, so pools are the preserve of hotels and the homes of the mega rich.

At the restaurant where we had lunch we consulted the owner about the best way to get back to Koraput.  He came up with the great idea that we get a train from the station nearby to a junction about an hour away that would meet the train going to Koraput that were travelling from Bhubaneswar.  This was all great in theory, but things are nearly never as simple as they seem

The art of bartering

So in India things are never generally ‘fixed price’, and even fixed price goods can generally be bartered for or receive a little discount.  From getting your grocery bill rounded off so that it is 300 rather than 320, to getting your room at a cheaper rate, most prices are up for debate.

One place where it is most definitely expected that you barter is when it comes to transport.  NEVER believe what an auto (also known as tuk-tuk or rickshaw) driver is telling you.  If they say it is very far, it is generally walking distance, if they say that the price of petrol has gone up or some local surcharge is in place, that it may be, but you still should only be paying about a quarter of their first price offer!

Below is a rendition of an average exchange between myself and someone from whom I am trying to purchase goods or services, and it usually goes something a little like this:

Me:  ‘Hi, I would like to go to insert destination’.  Sales person: ‘Okay, we go.’

Me:  ‘Yes, but I would like to know how much it costs first.’  Sales person: ‘Oh…..(dirver starts making calculations in his head distance x petrol price + upkeep of vehicle x how much of a mug is this person) …900 million lakh rupees’

Me:  ‘Oh no no no no no, I’ll give you two rupees’  Sales person: ‘WHAT?  No you insult me.  I will give it to you for 700 million lakh rupees’

Me:  ‘Sir, I make this trip often.  I know the true cost is around 7 rupees.’  Sales person:   ‘No!  The cost of petrol is very high now/you are many people travelling/you are white and of course I am trying to rip you off.’

Me:  ‘So what is your good price?’  Sales person:   ‘Okay, 500 million lakh rupees.  Take it.’

Me: ‘No sir, I am sure you can give me a better price.  I will give you 10 rupees.’ Sales person:   ‘Okay, 300 million lakh rupees, last price.’

Me:  ‘Sir I am sure you can give me a better price.  Let’s say 15 rupees.  Okay?’ Sales person:   ‘Eh!  I will give it to you for 100 million lakh rupees.  I make only 3 rupees profit.’

Me:  ‘Okay my best price is 30 rupees.’  Sales person:   ‘No madam.’

Me:  ‘Okay sorry sir, I will try somewhere else, goodbye (starts to walk off)’  Sales person:   ‘Okay, okay, 100 rupees, take it!’

Me:  ‘No.  I will give you 30 rupees.’  Sales person:   ‘Please madam, 70, nah?’

Me:  ‘30’.  Sales person:   ‘Okay 50, last price.’

Me: ’30.’  Sales person:   ‘Okay take it.’

And that my friends, is a typical barter process that you go through 10-15 times a day!

A day in the life of a Skillshare volunteer

So I am guessing that many of you ask yourselves what is it that I actually do all day to justify my existence?  Well I shall fill you in my friends!

Mornings start for me at 6am in Koraput.  Why?  Because in an effort to fight the Curry Belly (not delhi belly, that is from illness, this is from too much good food) I force myself out of bed for a morning run every day.  6am is an optimum time, because the sun is only just rising at this time, meaning that it is light enough to see, but it isn’t so late that it is too bloody hot (that is around 9am!).  Generally I run for about half an hour at the local sports field where the the local volley ball is team also trains every morning (goodness knows why, buy in Koraput, volley ball is BIG), there are also generally a few other souls out for their constitutional morning walks, and a few of other very fit men jogging and putting me to shame.

If I didn’t get enough stares already in Koraput I certainly found a way to get a few more.  A female doing exercise is weird.  A female on her own doing exercise is pretty goddamn crazy, and a white girl on her own running most definitely causes quite a stir!  I just wish that when I am getting so much attention that I am not looking quite so red faced and sweaty.  Ruthy running is not such a great look, I can promise you that!

Back home, I shower, dress (and yes folks, even iron my clothes; appearance is everything in India and there would be talk if you are seen out in crumpled clothes) and get my breakfast and then settle down to my morning date with Michel Thomas.  Nope this is not some hot French man I have met on my travels, this is the captured voice of some old French dude who teaches foreign languages via the medium of CD.

My next daring feat is to walk to work.  This also excites a lot of interest from people, particularly people at work, who constantly ask questions like, ‘you walk to work?’  ‘Every day?’ ‘Why?’  The fact that there is a free lift available to me every morning and yet I still choose to walk seems intriguing at best to most people.  I usually answer that it is for my health, as this is more plausible to people than the fact that I actually just prefer to walk and it doesn’t have to be for any particular reason other than to get a breath of fresh air and take in some of the scenery.

And the walk to work is great.  I pass by a stall holder man that says hello to me every day, walk down the lane full of children playing, or indeed washing by the well (there are generally one or two shameless butt naked children running around), past the snorting snuffling, often heavily pregnant pigs (I have NEVER seen pork on the menu in India, and it alludes me what these pigs are for) up onto the open red dust expanse, past the volley ball players (different lot to the official team, although these guys seem just as passionate), past the herds of cattle and goats (often together) and their herders (young boys who should be in school, or old women who should be putting their feet up) and on up to the SOVA office building that sits right out on the edge of Koraput.

At work we have been allocated various different tasks to get on with during our time here.  I have been asked to proof reading documents and critically analyse content for reports that are going out to international audiences. I am always amazed at the vocab of most of the authors and their general capabilities writing such detailed documents in a foreign language.  If someone asked me to do the same kind of work in French I would be completely flummoxed.  Documents I have worked on recently have been a study into migtatory habits of the local population who are forced to travel to other towns, cities or states in order to find work to support their families, and also a report evaluating the effectiveness of street plays as an educational tool.

Twice a week we work in a school, but I will talk about that separately as this deserves a little more attention.

I have also been given the task of writing the annual reports for SOVA for the past two years and Shri is creating a new publicity brochure for the organisation that will go out to national and international audiences.

The next plan is for the staff at SOVA, and myself, Shri and a new VSO volunteer, Kristiane, to conduct English/Oreya conversation classes to improve some of the staff members’ spoken English (their written skills are often great, but they can be quite shy when it comes to speaking English) while we learn some Oreya.  This should go down a storm with the kids and the locals, who love it if you even know how to say ‘thank you’, or ‘how much is it?’

Other projects that are about to start include researching possible funding options to continue a programme called ‘Coaching for Hope’, an education through sport programme whereby local teenagers and young adults are trained how to be football coaches, and at the same time are taught how to become peer educators so that each coaching session includes a lesson on HIV or other health and social issues.  So the kids come along for the sports, but at the same time learn important lessons that they can hopefully share with their families and friends.

All in all this is keeping us pretty busy!

At work, the day is divided up by tea breaks and lunch.  Unlike my experiences in the UK where people generally grab lunch and eat it at their desk, in India people take their breaks a bit more seriously.   We have two 15 minutes tea breaks, one at11.15am and another at 4.15pm.  These breaks offer us are a chance to catch up on gossip with the girls in the office, and to quiz them on some Hindu, Muslim, or general Indian practices that we have questions about.  The girls in turn ask us questions about the UK.  I always asssume that everyone has a good idea about western culture through T.V. and film, and although the girls all watch Western films etc, there are still many gaps in their comprehension.

Lunch is provided at the office as well, at the grand total of 600 rupees a month, for 6 meals a week. That means that each meal costs roughly 24 rupees, or around 30 pence, including the tea breaks and any little snacks or biscuits that we occasionally get as well.  Considering that we get to serve ourselves as much as we want and generally get rice, chapattis, dal and then two, three or even four other curries, we don’t do too badly.  You may understand the need for a 6am run every morning a little  more clearly now!

Lunch is generally eaten on the lawn outside the office and we eat off metal trays with little compartments for the different curries.  You may have seen these kind of trays in American prison-based dramas.  The custom in most parts of India is to eat with your hands.  This is something I have taken to with gusto, as I have never been one with the best table manners and love any excuse ot play with my food!  The general action you use is to scoop some food onto your fingers and then flick it into your mouth with your thumb.  You only eat with your right hand, as the left hand is used for other matters, if you get what I mean…

Work finishes between 5.30-6.15pm, depending on when we get driven home in the staff jeep.  There are generally two people and the driver in the front, 4-5 people in the back and two to three people on flip down seats in the boot.  It is what one might call ‘a little cosy’!

We often get left off in town so we can buy groceries and bits and pieces, and depending on our mood we either cook at home or buy something from one of the street venders on the way home.  To begin with we cooked almost all our meals at home, but as time has worn on we are becoming more and more attracted to the street sellers because it is often cheaper and tastier than what we can make!  10 rupees buys me two samosas and enough chickpea curry to fill my belly, that is about 15pence to you or me.  Alternatively 20 rupees buys me veg biryani or veg noodles.  It is a vegetarian’s heaven in India, because meat-based products are actually in the minority.  Generally you have to look hard to get a meat samosa, or a meat curry, it is far more typical to get something that is ‘pure veg’, this means without egg as well, so brilliant for the vegans of this world.  And something that I really don’t tire of is curry.  I eat it everyday and it doesn’t get boring.  I am also finding myself putting chillies into all the food I cook at home too, even spices for breakfast are welcomed!

In India the sun sets by 6.30pm-7pm, and Mr Das who lives upstairs likes us to be home before the power cuts at about 8pm.  Generally town is busy until about 9pm as the shops close in the middle of the day when it is too hot, but after 9pm it is a ghost town anyway.

No pubs, no clubs, there are no real places to congregate other than wandering up and down the streets or  standing about by the dhabas where people go to eat.  Most teenage boys cruise about on their motorbikes (you buy your licence here rather than taking a test) but even they are back home by 9pm!

Back at home we while away the evenings cooking, watching films on our laptops and reading.  Due to my early starts I generally head to bed pretty early, it is all pretty clean living here!  A big night out is for us to go to one of the two hotels in the town for dinner, and even then we are generally back before 9.30pm.  I feel like I should be polishing my halo I am being that virtuous

And that, my friends, is a day in the life of a Skillshare volunteer.

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