Sunday, 31 August 2008

Majestic Mysore

Yeah, we might have pissed off some monks, broken two tuk-tuks and got sunstroke but it made for great photos. Here’s some snaps from our weekend in historic Mysore; land of palaces, dusky hues and mausoleums to die for.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Life in the Slums

There are two types of slum in Bangalore city; those that are temporary and those that are not. The distinction is instantly recognisable by the materials used to make these tent-like abodes. The city’s short term economic migrants use plastic advertisements and carrier bags to shelter from the elements whereas the generations old shanty towns are made from leaf thatch roof, mud bricks and occasionally corrugated iron.

Much of Ruthlina’s time is spent undertaking social work, as she provides non-formal education and counselling for Bangalore’s poor and has established women’s saving groups in four of the city’s largest slums. We accompanied her on several of her visits to Bande slum to help her collect profiles on vulnerable children who are candidates for places at Brinn’s Nest. Bande slum exists because of its near proximity to a granite quarry. Nearly all the occupants of the slum, including women and children, are employed in backbreaking and dangerous quarry work. Accidents are frequent and there is little opportunity to break free from the cycle of poverty. Tuberculosis, worms and water-borne diseases are highly prevalent here. Only last month eight children died of something as common as chickenpox because they didn’t have adequate access to basic healthcare.

Despite their desperation, everyone we met welcomed us joyously into their homes. All were eager to share their stories as well as the little food they have. One woman, a widow, who thorough Ruthlina’s saving group had managed to acquire a few goats, made us sweet chai, using milk straight from a buffalo. Even success stories like hers were tainted with sadness. One of her goats was stolen by a much richer woman from the neighbouring village, and despite her appeals to the police, nothing has been done.

Castism plays a major role in much of the poverty we witnessed. The system means that it is incredibly difficult to better your situation, as well-paid jobs, education and even necessities like clean water and healthcare are denied to the low castes. The dalits or untouchables have little hope of improving their lives and are often forced to sell themselves and their children into bonded labour. They are seen as polluted, and are not allowed to even enter high caste villages, let alone use the same streams or wells. We too were accused of polluting high caste houses, just by walking through the village on our return from the slums. It is hard to imagine how the poverty like this will ever disappear whilst there is such mentality. This is not just social stigmatism; the system is both politically and religiously sanctified.

It would be unfair to say that the only problems that dalits face come from members of other castes. In India widows are regarded as social outcastes and are often particularly vulnerable. Most are sexually harassed by men with their own community (who are often themselves married) and problems with abandoned children and botched abortions are rife. One of the most disturbing points of our visit was when we met a young widow who was being continually raped by several men in her community. One of the men was there as she told us of her traumatic experience. He even had the nerve to philosophise that it ‘wasn’t natural’ for a woman to be alone and could ‘see it in her eyes’ that she wanted his company. I couldn’t look at him I was so furious.

Many of our visits have been more light-hearted. We taught ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ to the kids at the slum near Christina’s house, as their parents looked on horrified (as the photographs later showed). One of the boys from Bande slum delightedly entertained us with his pet parrot, some escapades on buffalo-back and by climbing a tree at the speed of light. Visiting the slums, sitting in peoples houses and listening to their problems is the first move towards breaking down castism. I just wish that it weren’t down to renegades like Ackhar to make these baby steps and that religious and political leaders supported rather than opposed her.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Our Home in Bangalore

Bangalore is not a city that you’d visit for fun. Despite the bars and nightlife, most tourists wisely choose to avoid the city, using it solely as a gateway to other Indian attractions. Karnataka’s capital boasts a population bigger than London but none of the infrastructure to support it. The massive industrial boom here, especially in the IT and business sectors, has meant that the city has shot up at an uncontrollable speed and is at present suffering from substantial growing pains. The traffic is insane and the narrow and potholed roads simply can’t cope. Economic migrants flock to the city by the bus-load, but cannot afford the steep living costs and so are forced to into the slums. The difference between these houses and the swanky offices of big business is made more pronounced by their proximity to each other. Unlike London, poverty is not restricted to certain areas of the city. Instead skyscrapers sit next to shanty towns and family homes next to the slums.

The reason Lilith and I have ventured to the “Garden City” is to research and carry out a project with a newly formed NGO here and to assess whether it will be compatible with the aims of Bristol student charity BVDA. For the next five weeks we’ll be staying with Christina, head of the NGO Kirana, and her family. Kirana, which means “ray of light”, works with underprivileged children from both the rural and urban slums of the Bangalore area. The Children growing up in the slums have very little access to education, electricity or clean water and face a future of bonded labour, performing dangerous quarry work. The trust is currently in the process of building a home in the village of Chikkballapura for the most vulnerable of these children. Our aim is to establish whether there is a project here for future BVDA volunteers and well as to give Kirana some assistance in getting off the ground.

Christina herself has just turned thirty and is a lively and modern Indian woman, with a permanent twinkle in her eye. Her husband Dominic is also quite unorthodox, helping with cleaning and cooking as well as man-tasks such as driving, hunting down the best fish (albeit from the market) and cockroach removal. He has a mop of dark, thick hair and a fine moustache. He is a man that knows that in a crisis only a ridiculously overpriced pizza will do. Their daughter Catty is confident beyond her four years and is at times a bit of a madam. She’s always full of beans and is a born entertainer.

Christina’s sister Ruthlina is also a semi-permanent feature of the household. Ten years senior to Christina, Ruthlina (who we fondly call ‘ackhar’ or ‘sister’) takes on the role of nagging but comic aunty, famous everywhere for her constant chattering. Ackhar is also a nun, but not in any traditional sense. She cares little for the church, doesn’t believe in an afterlife and holds the most progressive social and political views of anyone I’ve met in India. She’s smiley, plump and always full of energy. It doesn’t take much to see who Catty takes after. The last member of the close family is Leena, Christina’s niece. Having lost her father when she was a baby and her mother just two years ago, she splits her time equally between Christina’s house and the family home which she shares with her two elder brothers. Leena is a 21-year-old master’s student and so in many ways is our Indian equivalent. Far more innocent and romantic than most British 21 year olds, she doesn’t quite get our rather dry sense of humour but despite this has become our instant friend. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to emerge as an adult without ever having heard the Beatles, punk or anything better than poor quality pop.

The house is situated in the predominantly Christian suburb of Marianna Palaya, which is, rather accurately, called an urban village. Although the office blocks of central Bangalore loom in the distance, cows and goats wander freely and the roads are narrow and dusty. The house is only two years old, and is a beautiful concrete construction (contradiction as that might sound) complete with all mod-cons. A generator means that we hardly notice the frequent power cuts and the only sounds that can be heard are winds in the trees and the shouts of children from the nearby school. The roof provides views of the surrounding coconut trees, as well as the nearby slum and distant city.

We’ve already had an induction into Bollywood, been taught a few classical dance steps and had our hands hennaed by the talented Leena. After the first few days of being overfed to the point of discomfort, we’ve engaged in a food war as we try to keep our calorie intake to less than 3000 a day. The food is amazing; tasty flatbreads, sumptuous curries and the most inventive rice dishes I’ve ever seen, but at present there’s just far too much. Taking tips from Channel 4 documentaries on Anorexia, we’re utilizing distraction techniques, as well as smuggling biscuits to beggar children and receiving apples gratefully only to sneak them back into the bowl at a later date. Always choose a pomegranate over a banana; they take ages to eat (hopefully you won’t be given anything else in the meantime) and they’re not filling in the slightest. More seriously, it’s been pretty difficult to reconcile this kind of hospitality with the poverty that we see just outside our doorstep.

At times I feel quite trapped by the lack of freedom, both in what we are allowed to do as well as how much we eat, but I think I am getting a pretty accurate picture of how it is to grow up a young woman in modern India. Here women are children until they are married, and must make the transition more or less overnight. A combination of overwhelming hospitality and fear for our safety means that we are heavily dependent on Christina and her family. It will be interesting to see how this changes during our stay.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Fix Up, Look Shark

Arriving in Cochin felt like heaven compared to our rather traumatic departure from Colombo. Check in and customs were disorganised to say the least and it took us nearly two and a half hours to get through the system. In India we arrived to chirpy customs officials, smooth passport checks and a taxi system so efficient it even printed the cab’s number plate on our ticket. It had been raining so the coconut trees were glistening, as were the romantically retro white ‘Ambassador’ cars, an elegant Morris Minor type affair straight out of the 1940s.

Cochin is a large town that sprawls over several peninsulas and islands, each connected by rather ropey-looking ferries and a swish new toll bridge. Fort Cochin is the oldest part of the area and acts as little tourist enclave away from the hectic city across the waters. After being shown photos of our hotel proprietor’s grandchildren, we walked the short distance to Princess Street, the tourist hub of the sleepy district. Fort Cochin is famed for its delightfully chic cafes, and the first we visited, aptly named Teapot, was one of the best the town has to offer. The interior was a mix between colonial cool and shabby French farmhouse, and one wall was adorned with teapots of all shapes, sizes, material and colours. Even the tables were made out of old tea chests. We drank sweet, spicy chai from terracotta beakers and had our fill of creamy coconut curry and ‘death by chocolate’ cake.

We were due to leave Cochin the following evening so decided to head to Ernakulam Junction train station to book a sleeper train for our journey to Bangalore. We took a rather rickety ferry across the harbour, and on finding the station, proceeded to fill in the most comprehensive form imaginable. Quite why they needed my mother’s maiden name, occupation and distinguishing features to book a train seat, I’ll never understand.

That evening we dined at one of the many outdoor restaurants, but one of the few that sells alcohol. Our beers were served in white china, prohibition-style teapots, making us feel like we were not only the height of 1920s cool but dead sneaky with it. We were sat next to the restaurant’s tandoor with a perfect view of each naan being rolled, seasoned and being gently baked inside the hot, drum-shaped oven. Fresh fish, prawns and marinated chicken were also flung inside and left to sizzle away.

The next morning we strolled along the shore amongst giant Chinese fishing nets. These ancient contraptions yield a variety of different fish, which are all for sale still half alive from stalls that line the coast. We were made to promise five different salesmen that we’d be back at dinner to eat their fish, none of which we honoured. Lil got up close and personal with a little shark, much to the amusement of the surrounding fishermen.

Our next stop was the Dutch Palace, and home of the Cochin museum, just along the coast at Mattancherry. The palace was nothing to look at from the outside, but held some real gems inside. The highlight was a small room that was entirely decorated from scenes from the famous Hindu epic, the Ramayana. In this tale the heroic Rama, struggles against the odds to rescue his wife Sita, who has been captured by the demon kind Ravana. With the help of monkey god Hanuman, and some other colourful sidekicks, he pursues and slays Ravana and rescues his grateful lover. The paintings were exquisite. Each face was so expressive and costume so ornate that it felt as though the story was happening in that room. The rest of the building was rather typical of Indian museums; full of objects with explanations of varying quality. The disorganisation and inconsistency is no doubt due to their current revamp and when the additions have been made I’m sure it will make a very fine museum.

After a brief lunch back in Fort Cochin, we collected our bags and headed to Ernukalam station. I’ve never seen a train as long as the one we caught. Although slowed by our rucksacks, we had to walk for at least five minutes to reach our designated carriage. The blue leatherette seats were sparse but comfortable and would later unfold to create three bunk beds for the overnight leg of the journey. Chai-wallahs, jewellers and booksellers flashed their wares to customers, braking up the journey along with beggars, shady ne’er-do-wells and dancing children. It’s not difficult to see how the midnight’s children of Salman Rushdie’s novel of the same name formed in his imagination.

Some eleven hours later, we arrived in bustling Bangalore, tired but excited about the next leg of our two month trip.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Temples, Mountains and Holy Teeth

Traveling to Kandy was not quite as pleasant as our journey down the southwest coast. The Galle-Colombo leg was smooth enough but just like us, thousands of Sri Lankans were making the pilgrimage to mountainous Kandy for the Perahera. Three hours of sweaty jostling later, we arrived to be promptly searched as we left the railway station. I felt pretty sorry for all the commuters stuck behind the two farrang girls as our giant backpacks were rigorously checked and medication scrutinized. The atmosphere in Kandy couldn’t have been more different to soporific Galle. Traffic screeched past at break-neck speed, the air was heavy with pollution and we were constantly hassled by people wanting our business in some way or another. The number of tourists attending the Perahera has fallen dramatically this year, leaving many guides and shopkeepers desperate to make some money from the few that had ventured to Kandy. We soon tired of being followed down the street by rather threatening tuk tuk drivers, and our polite ‘No’s quickly morphed into more aggressive utterances.

The Perahera itself was truly spectacular. The ten day celebration comprises of a nightly procession, culminating in the Maligawa Tusker carrying the Buddha’s tooth through the city streets from the Temple of the Tooth to Adahanamaluwa. Today the tooth relic stays safely within the Temple and only a replica can be seen for the procession. The big man himself is accompanied by 70-100 other elephants, dressed in velvet clothes and adorned with fairy lights and flowers. They share the streets with a menagerie of whip-crackers, dancers, fire throwers, stilt men and musicians. All manner of bizarre trumpets and pipes were on display, as well as painted dances clad in feathers, bells, tassels, bright silks and, by the end, plenty of sweat! Nearly three hours later the procession had finished and we returned to our room exhausted, narrowly avoiding being followed home.

The oppressive atmosphere was starting to take its toll. The constants hassle of the previous day had turned us into quite the sceptics and made us suspicious of everyone we met. This was further amplified on our ill-advised trip to the bus station to find out bus times for our journey back to the airport via Negombo. When we finally found the correct bus stand, we were told that the bus waiting there was the last to Negombo that day and that we should get on it quickly. This outright lying in order to get our immediate business was just the icing on the cake. We struggled through the mayhem of the bus station (an area the size of a football pitch clogged with hooting buses, fumes and no order whatsoever) and found a suitably up-market hotel to do some investigating for us. Relieved in the knowledge that there were plenty more buses that day, we headed for the quiet solitude of the Temple of the Tooth. The outer chamber was ornately carved and painted with scenes from Siddhartha Gautama’s transformation into Buddha as well as a menagerie of Sri Lankan flora and fauna. Moving upstairs we approached the home of the tooth relic itself. The vestibule was a Russian doll affair of different sized boxes, with only the gold-plated outer case visible to the public. Nearby the Perahera elephant’s coats were being prepared for another night of the procession, as temple staff threaded lights into the embroidered cloth. In the temple complex the Maligawa Tusker was enjoying his daily bath, flashing his gold-plated tusks at a crowd of spectators.

Reluctant to leave the peace of the temple, we headed back to the guest house to hastily collect our bags before the journey to Negombo. The mountain views were absolutely stunning; little temples were nestled amongst the trees and iridescent lakes lined the valley floor. Pleasantly surprised that we survived the Schumacheresque negotiation of twisting roads, we arrived amongst the neon lights of Negombo. We swiftly headed to bed, ready to recharge for our 6am flight to Cochin.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Going Up

- Frequent Frisking: want some love? Then head to a security check point.

- Olive Green knee-high socks: lady policewomen take tips from Miu Miu.

Going Down

- Hail [Mary] a cab: tuk tuk drivers are just as erratic as their Thai counterparts; the roads, however, are far worse.

- “I don’t like cricket”: disappointed faces as I reveal my non existent sports knowledge.

- Hustle, hustle, hustle: M.I.A. doesn’t lie, everyone has hustle on their minds.

- Missing a chance to try Smak (a soft drink with a difference?)

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Adventures in Sri Lanka

After no sleep, some dubious plane food and a medical mishaps (swooning and ballooning), Lil and I finally set down on Sri Lankan soil. We had just five days to explore the country before moving on to India. Equipped only with a seriously outdated guide book and our jet lagged wits, we negotiated our way through taxi touts, money exchangers and other hustlers to locate a cab that wasn’t asking $85 and our kidneys to take us into Colombo. We had decided to follow the Foreign Office’s advice and head south, thus avoiding the near constant blasts in the country’s capital and the conflict in Tamil heartland of the north. Over a million people have been displaced by the conflict since the 1970s, and the escalation of violence between Sinhalese nationalists and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) has dramatically influenced the country’s tourist industry. The military presence was immediately noticeable. Khaki-clad soldiers seemed to outnumber the airport staff and our journey to Colombo was punctuated by road blocks, searches and passport checks.

We were dropped at Colombo Fort railway station from which we were planning to head to Galle, a costal fort that had been a stronghold for Dutch, Portuguese and British colonists since the 1500s. With three hours to spare before our train’s arrival, we searched the station for a place to rest our sleep deprived bodies. The station cafĂ© was our first port of call. The modest room was lit by light from high windows and the coloured fairy lights adorning a wonderfully gaudy image of the Buddha. We sat down to a coke, choosing not to indulge in the neon soft drink ‘Smak’, and drifted between exhausted silence and mild hysteria. Soon we acquired a fan club with a penchant for mimicry, so we moved to the ladies waiting room- a hangover from the railway’s colonial past. Safely in the maternal nest of this preening zone, we watched with interest as women rearranged their colourful saris and fixed their hair. The building itself possessed the faded glamour of run-down Victoriana, mixed with exotic foliage and bright modern alterations. Cats strayed casually on to the tracks, as did passengers, who, eager to get a seat, would race to the train to board it whilst it was still moving at some speed. The trains were heavy diesel-powered monsters, and despite their various states of cosmetic disrepair, looked like they would keep trudging on forever. Platforms were crowded with suits, vibrant saris and bizarre vehicles, such as steam powered three-wheelers loaded with chicks and vegetables. When our train pulled in there was a scramble, but we managed to find seats, thankful of somewhere to sit down for the next three hours. Inside the train, sellers of endless sugary delights made their way through the crowded carriages, each with their own song to advertise their wares.

The journey was spectacular. For the most part the track was some ten to twenty metres from the rough waves of the south-eastern coast. Children were playing cricket on the sands and well as splashing in the sea. Colourful boats were lying unused on the shore whilst others were just visible, bobbing on the distant horizon. The coast was also haunted by previous tragedy. Pre-tsunami houses were visible only by their ruined foundations and had been abandoned in favour of concrete bungalows some meters further away from the shore.

Arriving at Galle was a huge relief. The humidity had morphed my jetlag into pain in places I didn’t know could ache, top jaw and collar bones included. We found a guesthouse right by the rampart walls and so close to the sea that the noise of the waves infiltrated my rather aquatic dreams. Galle itself is sleepy little place. The Portuguese fort walls enclose the old town, which is made up of about 200 houses. The town’s architecture owes a great deal to the many nations that have controlled the area. It’s a strange mix of colonial splendour (dark wood fans, wicker steamers, and china tea cups) and the domes and intricate lattice work of the Middle East, due to the large influence of Arabic travellers and a substantial Muslim community.

The next day we strolled around Galle visiting the Mansion ‘Museum’ (rather a collection of nick-knacks owned by British grannies nationwide and a large gem shop), several churches the clock tower and government museum. No matter where you were in the town, there was always a sign pointing to the dubious Mansion Museum, usually in the wrong direction. The Dutch church was particularly beautiful. The whitewashed walls were covered with the names of the many foreigners who perished here whilst Galle was under foreign control. Many of the Dutch graves were carved with oddly stylised cartoons that, despite their age, could have come straight out of an issue of Le Gun. Death cheekily danced around podgy cherubs and was surrounded by all manner of strange creatures, each with faces like Mexican Sugar Skulls. The caretaker told us with delight that the stones were not just memorials to these foreigners but that their skeletons lay beneath each stone. The man showed rather too much delight to entice us to stay for longer

During a dinner of sweet aubergine curry, dhal and rice, we were informed that one of the most extravagant Sri Lankan festivals, the Esala Perahera, was taking place during our stay. On a whim we decided to move north to Kandy the next day, leaving peaceful Galle behind.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Gocco, Stock and Two Smoking Flashbulbs

Rarely do I get to obsess over Print Gocco, and hardly ever on one of the hippest magazine blogs about. Check out what BAD IDEA put up with, as I get excited over some of the Gocco work sent into the office and mourn the end of the road for this cult craftengine.

Also... click here to see my first attempt at Gocco printing earlier on in the year. Oh deer!

Artwork by Ella Tamplin-Wilson.