Thursday, 18 September 2008

Mr. Ambassador, you are really spoiling us

So I lost my purse and passport. Well, in fact they were probably stolen my one of two sneaky women with babies whilst I was on the bus. This sounds like an unlikely suggestion but apparently it is common for thieves to be women with babies in India, with even the Lonely Planet warning against these mothers.

After cancelling the cards (via the best of Dads), Lil and I ventured to the police station, anticipating an “uphill struggle” to quote the Rough Guide. Our expectations were swiftly met. Some kafuffle later, we were told that we’d have to go to a different station to make a statement as it didn’t fit into that police station’s area. So, off to a different station, where I had to give a statement to everyone from the cleaning lady to the Head of Police. The bureaucracy stereotype is so true. Forms are ridiculously meticulous, have to be filled out four times and have to be signed my twice as many people again. There were cops galore in the station, all curious about are relationship status and none fighting crime. It took a good three hours to get a police report, which I had to write three different versions of, each in a different room. The Police station was shabby chic indeed. All the signs were handwritten, mug shots sat next to celebrities on the peeling walls and all the clocks have been knicked from various institutions around Bangalore. You can just imagine the scene: “Hands up, we have a warrant”,
“But Officer, why the clock?”
“Shush, it’s evidence.”

The officers themselves were very kind, made us tea and smiled with glee when we let them flick through our copy of Grazia. The report is a piece of photocopies A4 with a few signatures on it; I really wouldn’t blame my insurance company for thinking I’d made the whole thing up.

Next stop the embassy. But wait, despite Bangalore’s gargantuan spread, the UK don’t camp out here, so off to Chennai (Madras) the capital of Tamil Nadu. We made the eight hour journey the following evening, in a bus that has come straight out of the 70s. The chairs were adorned with kitsch teapot patterned covers, and the curtains previous life had been on the set of a moustache-tastic B movie. After a witnessing a fight, some frightful undertaking and another passenger being biscuited (see Gulbarga’s post), we arrived in Chennai’s main bus station at 2am. Weary passengers were sleeping on every available floor space, so we had to tip-toe about not to disturb the unconscious bodies.

Checking into the hotel was more problematic than I’d expected. Our light luggage equated to “scanty baggage”, which frankly made me feel as though I was carrying a rucksack of thongs. Unsure as to whether we were being accused of being prostitutes or prime candidates for racking up the room service and doing a runner, the dispute was swiftly settled, like most, with a wadge of notes.

We left the hotel early the next morning in search of passport photos, and ATM and the UK High Commission. Finding all three was the ultimate test of our wits and nerves. After eventually discovering a shop that was open, I was photographed, photoshoped and issued with a new and improved version of myself. A fruitless search for a working ATM later, we were then faced with the challenge of getting a cabbie that would take us to the Commission. Place names, an address, and a map could not provide enough information for these poor drivers, so we were left to walk it, despite the urgency and increasing heat.

The Commission was a haven inside the busy city. The Commissioner’s assistant was the nicest women alive (I was tempted to call her ‘Aunty’ at one point), and instead of the disapproving looks I was expecting, I was met with condolences and smiles. I was somewhat disappointed that the nationality interview wasn’t finishing Monty Python quotes and coming up with suitable insults for the French, but I suppose she only had to take one look at my neon-white legs, peeling nose and sheepish grin before confirming my Britishness. I might as well have had a knotted handkerchief on my head. I was told that I’d be issued an emergency passport within the week and asked to fill out a customer service questionnaire, yes, another form. As I was leaving the receptionist had to call a security guard down from his office upstairs to switch the TV channel back to BBC, obviously an issue of national importance!

With no reason to stay in the bustle of Chennai, we legged it back to the station and caught the 1.30pm bus with seconds to spare. Returning to Bangalore certainly felt like a homecoming. This city drives me nuts, but for now at least, it’s home.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Bricks and Trees

This week we’ve visited Chikballapura to see how the construction of the orphanage is coming along, as well as talking to the villages about what they would like to see from the project. Demand for non-formal education and English lessons seem pretty high up on the agenda and it was really encouraging to hear that the community wanted this kind of support rather than merely hand-outs.

Kirana aim to make Brinn’s Nest as self-sufficient as possible so they are planning to use the land surrounding the building for a vast veg patch and orchard. This will also be a great way of teaching the children how to cultivate their own food as well as getting them involved in their environment.

On Sunday we visited Brinn’s nest with the whole of Christina’s family to plant some of the first trees in the orchard. Lil and I plunged two different varieties of mango in the soil, aptly chosen for us by Dominic. One variety possessed long, thin leaves and the other has shorter, curvier foliage. I hope I’ll be able to come back to taste its fruit.

Here’s some pics of the work in progress and the family getting down and dirty!

Monday, 1 September 2008

Mass-tastic

When asked if I wanted to go to mass at 5am in the morning, the answer would normally be a pretty solid ‘no’. But as the people who were asking were my lovely hostess Christina and her eager family, a hestitant ‘yes’ issued from my lips.

When the alarm went off at 4am, I dressed alone, as Lilith had chosen to sleep and face divine retribution, and wearily stumbled into the living room. Everyone but Christina and her sister Chandra was asleep. Even the nun was missing mass! Hoping that Jesus would give me some serious kudos for getting up so early, I got into the car somewhat disgruntled.

As it was a feast day we went to Bangalore’s biggest church, St. Mary’s Basilica. The city felt ghostly without its trademark traffic but the strange atmosphere was soon lost as we entered the busy basilica. Negotiating the crowd in full sari was pretty tricky for a newbie like myself, especially as many people went out of their way to have a good look at the rather graceless white girl.

Nowhere does religious kitsch like India. The church was adorned to the eyeballs with fairy lights and polyester flowers, whilst the plastic saints and gigantic neon iconography would have made Baz Lurhman blush.

First on the itinerary was what I affectionately call ‘danger praying’. Equipped with a wreath of flowers and a candle, you have to fight your way to the front of the chapel before the candle burns to the bottom, sets fire to the flowers and leaves your hand a molten mess. Further hazard is added by young children (also given candles) and Indian women’s traditionally long hair. I made it, just, to the front of the chapel, where my candle was swiftly put out by the hand of a fire-retardant priest and the flowers were offered to a sari-clad statue of the Virgin Mary.

Next up was the scrum for the Eucharist. Services were going on back to back in Kanada, Telegu and English and it didn’t seem to matter that we hadn’t listened to the mass, it was all about the prize. Hitching my sari up to my knees, I followed as Christina disappeared into the crowd at break-neck speed. We elbowed the less pious out of the way and eventually received our holy reward. How people think about Jesus during such sport is a bit of a mystery.

Looking back, I’m certain that my efforts were noticed. We’ve been in some near-death traffic situations since and every time we’ve survived. So far.