South India: lost in the back streets

The idiosyncrasies of Indian culture include incredible warmth to strangers and providing an actual toilet for your dog..

It’s Monday morning and I have a meeting with our project contact, Dr Kari, in the coastal area. Last year the volunteer projects in this region were blighted by problems with the local authorities who were apparently not happy about our groups doing work at the schools.

The hotel owner (who is now being super helpful on account of him discovering that we plan to send groups here again) has arranged a rickshaw for me to get to Dr Kari’s house. Up until now almost every rickshaw I have taken which has involved an address/area unknown to me has resulted in getting lost. I check with Mr Hotel owner that he has explained to the Mr Rickshaw driver where the hotel is and make sure I have the address. As predicted though, a few minutes later we are completely and utterly lost in the backstreets of the town.

Mr Rickshaw driver stops to ask a couple of boys the way, its clear they don’t really know but this is irrelevant in India, even if they don’t have a clue where we want to go they still offer directions so as not to lose face. The appearance of knowledge is very big here. Off we trundle again, and several U turns later Mr Rickshaw driver asks 2 more passers by. I give my phone to the driver who tries to talk to Dr Kari but seems unable to get what he is talking about and so passes the phone to the passersby, who in turn tells the driver what Dr Kari says.

When we set off again I don’t even consider that we could get lost again since I am sure that after all this talking he simply must have an idea where this address is. Not so. Only 2 minutes later he stops to ask yet more people who again send us back in the opposite direction. By now its becoming clear that My Rickshaw driver isn’t the sharpest tool in the box and without a map of this area I am doubting we will every find Dr Kari. We find ourselves in a maze of back lanes and Mr Driver stops again to ask. The first person he asks isn’t sure and gradually we draw a quite crowd of people, all wanting to help. People come out of their houses or stop what they are doing and come over, others stand at the door watching and other vehicles also stop. The phone is comically passed around from person to person and everyone gets the lowdown from Dr Kari, who by now is about to give up himself. Finally we race off, but unbelievably within 2 minutes we have stopped again to ask!  Eventually, by some miracle we pull into a lane where we see a man waving. We have made it. I thank Mr Richshaw Driver for an interesting ride and Dr Kari and I have a good giggle about it.

This episode although frustrating, reminds me how naturally warm, genuine and helpful South Indian people are, even somewhere like Kollam which although isn’t exactly on the tourist trail, does regularly see western tourists pass through. The locals will do anything to help you and their kindness really warms my heart. Indian people obviously also have a natural connection with the UK, but instead of any resentment about being ruled by us for so long, there is a genuine excitement to meet you. As soon as the word “UK” is mentioned stories pour out about their cousins/sister’s nephew/great aunt who visited the UK in 1971 etc.

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Children on Kollam beach


Dr Kari and I have a chat about the project issues and he has a slightly different version of events than the reports as expected. We talk for a long time and manage to resolve some issues, but I know I will need to look deeper into this. Luckily I am due to meet the Director of the Ministry of Tourism tomorrow in a bid to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Dr Kari is a lovely, highly philanthropic man and it’s hard to tell him we only have one team for this area next year. As we get in the car to go and visit the potential project school, I notice something which I find very funny: Dr Kari’s dog lives in large cage outside the house and inside the cage there is an actual toilet. No really, not some special dog toilet, a neat round hole with the toilet seat over it and a normal toilet cistern with a flush chain on it!! Dr Kari says he has trained the dog to use it. Oh I love India…..


School children in Kollam



That afternoon I begin my search for good hostel accommodation in Kollam. The first hostel/hotel I visit is not ideal, but the owner is a real character. He proudly shows me around the windowless rooms and tells me that his hotel is far superior to any others nearby. It’s a long visit which involves sitting in his office and listening to his life history before I manage to make my excuse to leave. After several failed attempts to get through the door, I am almost there. As I shake hands with him and say goodbye begins to tell me about his brother who lives in England and lives next door to David Beckham, and that yes he will be visiting this friend soon. He still hasn’t let go of my hand. Oh and did I know his brother was a famous actor in Bollywood? Just as I think I can yank my hand free without offence he starts to tell me about his best friend who is chief of the police……

Eventually I arrive back at the hostel and plan for the next day.


Kollam beach

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