In my first few days in Kerala I discover business is conducted via head wobbling and encounter an ingenious NGO working with under privileged children.
The Indian family sitting opposite me are staring again. When I read they stare, when I sleep they stare and when I eat they stare. I am one of only 3 Westerners on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kochi in Southern India, and as yet un-used to the continual staring that will accompany me on this research trip (recce).
I am met at the airport by a man in a cream 1950’s-esq “Ambassador” car. “You from?”, the taxi driver asks. I would be asked this question 1000 times over in the coming weeks by rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers, shop keepers, hoteliers, waiters and often people just passing me in the street.
Kerala is one of India’s wealthiest states, and as we drive through the outskirts there is a sense of wealth I was not expecting; bill boards advertising luxury flats, gold jewellery and wedding shops flash past. In 1957 Kerala was the first state in the world to freely elect a communist government which has been in and out of power ever since. This democratic form of communism has led to equality in land distribution as well as a focus on health and education. Today 30% of the state’s wealth is ploughed into education and Kerala has the highest literacy (91%) and life expectancy (73) of any Indian state.
The next day, stepping outside into India in daylight for the first time I soon realise Fort Cochin does not really have much to do with India. The town is on a peninsula connected to the mainland via a bridge. The real Cochin city is on the mainland and behaves much like any other hectic Indian city, but Fort Cochin seems like a piece of India sectioned off just for tourists. The majority of the people on the narrow streets of this tiny port enclave are westerners, and not only that, western package tourists! Every single shop is a tourist restaurant, souvenir shop or travel agency. It’s easy to see the appeal of the town: narrow atmospheric streets lined with white medieval buildings, ornate white catholic Churches, a Dutch palace, wooden roof top restaurants, quaint art galleries and a general air of times past make a lovely place to wander. All this is courtesy of a 600 year history which includes Portuguese, Dutch and British traders along with Chinese fisherman who brought their now infamous enormous spider-like fishing net contraptions to Cochin’s port.
Down to business. My first task, (other than searching out some muesli and green tea of course) is to research the hostel situation. I attempt my usual game of “how fast can you recce a hostel” but soon found that in India this game is almost certainly lost before starting. After a long conversation, I am shown around the first hotel by the very proud owner and then I attempt my first escape. Ah no. Before I knew it I am on the back of a motorbike (full on the ground risk assessment conducted of course) whizzing my way to his second hotel, which I already know before arriving will be unsuitable for our groups. Half an hour later after many discerningly flattering comments about Mr Singh’s hotel we are back at hotel number 1. “Come in and sit down” he pines, gesturing me back into the office. I make my excuses and scarper, my first lesson of India learned.
It’s during my visit to one hostel that I come across the Indian art of head wobbling for the first time. Somehow I have managed to live all my life without knowing about this typical Indian trait. The receptionist seems to wobble and shake her head in different directions whatever I say. She can be answering “yes” to a question but still shaking her head and I begin to wonder if she has some sort of facial/head wobbling tick. “How many rooms do you have here?” I ask. “12” she says as she wobbles her head ferociously. “So you can sleep 24 then”. I say. More vigorous head shaking follows and I am seriously confused. That is until the next day I begin to notice it more and more in almost all conversations with Indian people. Basically the head wobble can mean “Yes”, “No,” or “I don’t know” which makes for a confusing first few days.
I visit as many hostels, tour agencies-posing-as-tourist-information and money changers as possible. Many cups of ‘chai’ (Indian tea), long winded discussions about how many people can be squeezed into one home-stay, and foot-mileage later I manage to make it to see Fort Cochin’s tourist spectacle of the sun setting over the local giant sized Chinese fishing nets. Getting that elusive picture however demands finding a rock which isn’t already taken by an over- weight German package tourist, which somehow ruins the moment for me.
The next morning, feeling like a VIP I get into the landrover which has been sent to collect me by our in country supplier, a local adventure tourism agency. On arrival at their offices, it is obvious that this isn’t going to be just any first-meeting-on-recce with a normal agent. Rather than the usual cafe in some dodgy neighbourhood, here are the agent sparkling shiny offices situated amongst mansions in the best part of the city of Ernakulum/Kochi.
I am lead into the board room where 3 middle aged men and 2 younger men are already seated and looking ready for me to lead some sort of World Challenge summit. The older men introduce themselves as the Directors, they are ex Naval commanders who feel the need to keep their titles even though they are now working in tourism! Their staff address them at “Sah”. Feeling slightly uncomfortable, I begin the usual endless round of ‘Thank You’s’ for their work last year before starting on the review points and plans for next year. A short time later, on hearing the mention of helmet wearing for elephant riding, I witness 5 grown Indian men collapse into fits of laughter.
“Whhaaaattt?” They roar, “If you find thiiiiis helmet the groups will be in the newspaper the next day, no one has ever seen such a thing in India!”
The formality is suddenly gone and replaced by a jolly atmosphere in which I am heartened to realise that sarcasm is alive and well in India, and moreover, here even company director’s love to take the p*ss out of themselves! I had had my first taste of the true warmth of Indian people and there was much more to come.
Later that afternoon I meet with a contact from an NGO called “Making a Difference (MAD), which provides extra curricular English classes to under privileged children at various orphanages around the city. Not long out of Uni himself, Jithin could talk for India and takes me through the organisation, staffing and mission of the NGO without stopping for breath at breakneck speed. By the time he has stopped talking its early evening and we head for an orphanage for disadvantaged girls where classes are taking place. Supported by the Catholic Church, the orphanage itself seems fairly well off, but all the girls here are from a background which includes some sort of trauma. Families who don’t have enough money to look after them, abusive parents, or absent parents.
The girls are grouped into 5 classes according to age and are listening attentively when I enter the first class. Hands shoot up with enthusiasm at each question. Their passion for learning touches me. As soon as I pop my head into the classroom the children begin firing questions at me and control is lost. They only settle down again after being promised they can talk to the foreigner at the end of class. The girls form a circle around me and ask several million questions. After the ubiquitous “what is your name”, comes “what is your mother/father’s name, what religion are you and do you have mosquito bites” which I find an odd combination!
MAD is a very clever model for an NGO. Entirely staffed by volunteers, mostly University students, it seems to run like a dream. Each volunteer takes an English class twice a week at a centre near them and the minimum time requirement is one year. The volunteers get a rewarding teaching experience and the children get a golden chance to learn English which they never would if it wasn’t for this organisation (all the volunteers are from the higher classes and went to English medium schools). MAD doesn’t just teach the kids English, it also aims to raise their awareness about career paths and life choices which they would not otherwise be exposed to.