Chickens Everywhere

Feeling tired, still recovering from the holiday and trying to get used to being back in Mumbai and working in the slum. I took the rickshaw, sharing with two rather large ladies and for some reason, found myself squashed between the both of them. As usual, I arrived at the crowded railway station where I had to get an overcrowded train to the station nearest my work.

Nothing much different from any other day when I go to work. The train did feel perhaps a little more crowed than usual, but other than that, nothing seemed more than I had got used to travelling to work.

As I stood with the smells I had become accustomed to everywhere, I looked out on the track, as the train moved along from one station to the next. Looking out onto the track is never dull and every day there is always something new and interesting to see. The railway track often doubles up as the toilet and, if I felt I had the stomach for such observations, I would often see all ages and genders emptying their bowels. The first time I saw such a spectacle, I was in shock; now I just look and it doesn’t even seem to affect me.

The railway track is not only used as a toilet, but also as a dumping ground. Just like I mentioned before, when describing the rivers that are used to throw anything away you can imagine, the railway tracks are the same. Plastic being the one material that is notable: plastic bottles everywhere. Here you see the children and women risking their lives, walking over the live railway track to collect these bottles to exchange them for just enough money to keep themselves alive. I look and I know that these are similar ages to the young children I teach in the slum. Children that can’t afford to go to school that have to collect rubbish to survive. But these are not the children I teach, only because they live in a different area, and live further up the track.

Amongst the pure madness of plastic and filth, there are always animals. Rats, cats, dogs and even cows. All rummaging amongst the rubbish to see if they can find something to eat. I often look out to see what animals I can see; crows are usually in abundance. But this day I see an animal that is rare in these parts, a pig. Not a pink pig, but a grey pig with a black saddle on its back, reminiscent of the British ‘Saddleback Pig’ The last time I saw one of these creatures was at a farm park in Suffolk, where I used to take my two sons to look at farm animals. This was unusual and it made me smile, but as the train moved closer, there was something on its back. It was a chick, a baby chicken just sitting there as if to say look at me. It made me smile further, and I thought Only in Khush India.

I arrived at the slum and the children were all waiting for me. It seemed that Maria, the teacher, was late and didn’t feel too well. I started the lesson as she walked in late and just sat down and watched.  It was a lesson on verbs. I wasn’t sure how much the children learnt, but they loved to repeat what I said and, as always, we all smiled.

Just before we had a break, the cleaner Chitra, who lived next door to the classroom, entered the classroom. She often did this, sometimes joining in with the lesson, other times she would clean around the children as they sat on the floor. But this time she had come into the classroom to show me Colin the chicken, the class pet. As I was teaching, she just let the chicken go and Colin tried to fly around the children’s head, as I was trying to explain that the past tenses of most verbs ended in -ed.  After a while, Colin would get tired with flying and would just walk around the classroom, making funny noises and walking, extending his neck in and out, just like chickens do. The children were unfazed and continued to look at me expecting me to continue delivering the lesson. However, I was in shock, jumping out of Colin’s way, trying not to laugh or panic. Finally, Colin was caught by Chitra and put back into his washing basket coop, with a silver train on top of the basket. I had never felt comfortable about the way Colin was kept, but trying to explain this sentiment would not be easily and I would probably be misunderstood. As the cleaner left the classroom, I returned to teaching the lesson, with Maria still sitting down, smiling. I was sure Colin’s adventure in the classroom had been purely for my benefit, and for Chitra to see my facial expressions as the chicken caused chaos in the classroom.

Chitra and Maria with Colin the class pet.

It was lunch time and I sat on the floor eating my fruit as all the other teachers spoke together in Hindi. Here I would just sit and think about this unreal situation I found myself in. I thought more about the children I had seen earlier walking on the railway track, knowing that the children that I had just taught would now being off doing the same rubbish collecting to survive.

I wanted to do something to help these children, maybe I could raise some money someway to buy some books, to educate them, to ease them out of poverty. Maybe, I thought, I could walk across India on my own; that would certainly raise some money.

Thoughts continued as I sat in isolation. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw something move outside the classroom that was used as the staff dining room. At first I thought it was Colin, but I realised we were on the other side of the tower block and nowhere near the classroom, so it could not be Colin. I walked out into the corridor and I saw a bright yellow chick sitting, looking out of window in the room next door, where a family lived. I stood and watched and then I saw a white chick; so pure white it looked unreal. I was just about to walk back into the staff room and continue my solo thinking, when another chick appeared. This one was bright pink. I was shocked – I had never seen a pink chick in my life, but then, why would I have?

I returned to the staff room and explained to Maria what I had just seen, she just laughed. I asked why people would have such coloured chicks.  She explained they liked the look of them. She said that they were made that colour to look good so people would buy them. I sat there again, all ears and mouth wide open. I was learning again. She said that they were dyed those colours. I thought why would you dye a chick pink? Then I thought about it a bit more logically; how were they dyed? Maria explained that as soon as the chicks are hatched, cotton cloths dipped in dye are wrapped around their bodies so that after a couple of days, the whole chick is permanently dyed whatever colour is desired.

I then thought about this odd situation even further.  Surely, as the chick grows, the pink colour will remain, but as it grows, the newer feathers closer to the skin will be of its original natural colour. So when the chick grows into a chicken, it will be white with the feathers furthest away from the skin remaining pink. If it stays with the family as a pet, I can’t imagine a white and pink chicken looking good.  Would the owners think it looks cute anymore? So what happens to these dyed pink chicks, these pets once they get older? Being pets can’t be an option. So the pink chick is kept until it no longer looks pink and then used for food. But the idea of killing a pink and white chicken and turning it into a curry can only be described absurd.

That’s enough about chickens for one day!

Returning to Mumbai

Said ‘goodbye’ to Prakash, our driver for the last week or so. He had become a friend and it was quite emotional saying good. It had been a great holiday and we had all really enjoyed our time in Kerala.

The Slum
The Slum

Back on the plane and back to Mumbai, and every time you return to such a city, the culture never fails to hit you. We flew in and I looked out of the window to see the largest slum in Mumbai, located right next to the airport.  This is the slum where Slum Dog Millionaire was filmed; the most famous of all slums in Mumbai.  From the plane, you could see it was a slum by the mass of people and the blue plastic tarpaulin sheets used for roofs and corrugated iron sheets used for walls. I had not visited this slum and after all the publicity this slum had gained, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to visit it. It was different from the slum I taught in: its lay out in particular, but it made me think about all the children I had been teaching and would continue to teach. I guess a slum is a slum and I was keen to get back to work.

It had all been a bit of a rush and I would only be in Mumbai for two days before I had to return to the UK to run my business (consulting on primary school playgrounds). Therefore my work in the slum would have to wait a few weeks more.

Returning back from UK a few weeks later, the same culture shock hit me again as I flew in. This was the place where I was living, but it was never my home. In saying that and looking at all the crowds of people and smelling all the different smells, so nice some not so nice. It was a place that never failed to surprise me, to uplift me, to excite me. I managed to leave the airport and grab a taxi. The family, after four months of living in a hotel had now, at last, moved into an apartment. I had to get a taxi to my new home.  I was excited by this, but more excited to my family again.

I had to pre-pay for a taxi, at the airport.  I gave the man at the desk my new address.  I was expecting just to get in the taxi, sit back and wait to arrive. But as I approached my selected taxi driver, I realised he was asleep in the front seat of the cab with his feet up on the dashboard. So even before I had left the airport, I had to wake the driver up and try to tell him my new destination. Only in Khush India. Soon we were on the road where the sounds of the continuous horns blasting welcomed me home. I looked out of the taxi window and saw in the streets, in the shop doorways, poverty everywhere. I was keen to get back to my slum, where I could help teach the children. I had missed them; I had missed my job.

After a month away from the slum, the time had come for me return and start teaching where I had left off. I wanted to get there early but I couldn’t really remember how long it had taken me to get there. I didn’t want to be late. After saying goodbye and dropping the boys off at their modern, hi-tech, clean international school, I caught a rickshaw (not a train) to the slum. I had totally misjudged the time and I arrived over an hour earlier than I needed to.

With time to kill before the children arrived and lessons began, I decided to take a walk down to the river that I had seen when coming every day from the station by rickshaw. Each time in the past, I looked out of the rickshaw window, shocked by the condition of this river.  With time on my hands, I thought I would explore and see this river close up.

This really is a river

I knew that seeing this river would shock me, but I wasn’t prepared for the smell. I had to breathe through my mouth to try to stop the urge of being sick and even standing there, looking at this river, was a challenge. The water was grey, almost black, but the shocking factor was the lack of water. The whole river was completely filled with human waste. Plastic was the main ingredient, and there was so much of it, it had completely stopped the flow of the murky water.

I ventured closer and risked putting my feet on the side of the river bank so I could look further down the river. I had never had seen a river like this before and I never wanted to see another like this ever again. I thought how could such a natural feature of our planet be completely destroyed by humans? The river’s job was to collect water from whatever sources it could and then release the water back to the sea. As a result of us humans and the way we had carelessly disregarded our rubbish, the river was not allowed to do its job. I stood with my feet sinking into the black mud, sucking the stale air through my mouth, and wondered if this river ever had flowed, and if it had, what had it looked like? Did this river ever flow freely without human waste and plastic? Was this river ever a natural feature, before humans had ruined it? I feel that however poor people are, there should be no excuse for such careless behaviour; it just simply should not be allowed. I eventually took myself out of the mud and walked away from the river, feeling nothing more than sheer disappointment.

I walked back along a dusty track and soon found myself back on the slum, I walked to the classroom and I was still early. The children started to turn up, and the classroom was opened by Sheeta,l the lovely cleaner lady that lived next door to the classroom. The children all greeted me and sat on the floor, waiting for Marie, the class teacher to turn up. I sat in the corner of the class, not wanting to take over and I sat, waiting for Marie to turn up, just like the children. Thirty minutes passed and still Marie had not shown up.  A message was passed to me by another teacher – Marie would be late – there was a problem on the trains.

I sat in the corner, thinking I should just start the lesson, and when Marie turned up, we could continue with the lesson, or she could start another lesson with whatever she wanted to teach. But something stopped me from doing that.  I just sat in the corner and watched with amazement at the children and their behaviour. I was overwhelmed yet again by just being here in this slum. Each child entered the classroom, said hello to me and sat on the floor. I gave them no instruction whatsoever. I just said hello back.

Most children sat down and, without a word being passed between them, they opened their bags and produced some school work and went about their work in complete silence. Some read, some wrote, some in Hindi, some in English. They knew their teacher was late, but that didn’t affect them they didn’t want to waste time and so they started to work. These children ranged from 5 to 12 years of age and I just watched with total admiration. I couldn’t helping thinking back to how children would act back in the UK, and if the teachers was even 5 minutes late to class, all sorts of behaviour from fighting to shouting would be happening and could be described as normal behaviour. Eventually, Marie turned up 45 minutes late and the lesson began.

After a whole day’s teaching and, yet again, watching and learning from these wonderful children, it was time for me to leave and jump a rickshaw to the train station and get back home. I walked out of the slum as the children shouted their goodbyes over the balconies and I waved back. As I walked through the slum, I always walked slowly looking at every step I took. There was so much rubbish and dirt that every footstep had to be accounted for. I saw some more playing cards: the queen of diamonds, and right next to it, a three and four of diamonds.  This made me smile, a queen flush, I said to myself. Soon I was on the road outside the slum, looking to hail a rickshaw, but I wasn’t ready to go home just yet. I wanted to explore. I felt so pleased to be back here after my holiday and trip back to the UK that I wanted to see more of this place that I came to work in most days, and after a while, didn’t really notice that it was so different to what I was used to. But the break away from this place had made it more special, if that what you could call it.

Instead of waiting for a rickshaw to come, I started to walk out of the slum and along the road I usually rode along. I saw a bobcat moving piles and piles of rubbish – plastic cardboard, anything you could think of – was being moved and push and cleared. I smiled at the man that was driving the bob cat, and just wondered what and where all this collected rubbish would end up. I hoped it wouldn’t be dumped into the river I had seen earlier. I walked past the bobcat and found myself on another small dusty track with houses, well, shacks really, lining both sides. These were people houses, and none were any bigger than my bathroom in my new apartment. The same blue plastic tarpaulin sheets used for roofs and corrugated iron sheets used for walls that I had seen from the plane coming into Mumbai.

I continued walking, not really sure where this road would lead me, but felt it was going in the same direction as the river. I stopped in my tracks because right in front of me, I saw another sight that was completely new to me.  Chickens, yes chickens, hundreds of them. I had seen many chickens before but not so many live ones altogether. They were all tied in bunches of 6 or more by their legs and were hung upside down, alive and dangling, waiting to be bought for food. I wanted to take a photo, but something stopped me.

I walked past the chickens and I had been correct; I was right next to the same river I had seen earlier. I didn’t want to see it again, so I took a right turn onto another dust track road. I thought I had seen enough for the day, I had to get back home and I had been told I needed to buy a few things before I returned home. As I walked along, I saw two boys, I would guess about 9 and 10 years of age. These boys were both holding birds.  One boy had a pigeon and the other boy was holding a smaller bird, but I could quite see what sort of bird it was. I followed them.  They looked back over their shoulders in surprise to see me there, but neither of them smiled. Then they turned into a shack, their home, and I guess the birds they held in their hands were their dinners.

A shack for a home

At last, I had left the track, the river and the slum. Before I returned home, I had to by some flowers for one of the teachers at Michelle school and I needed a plastic washing up bowl. I had found the bowl – a lovely green one and then the flowers. I waited on the side of the road, trying to catch a rickshaw back to my apartment, I wasn’t too surprised that no rickshaw drivers would stop. Flowers in one hand and green plastic bowl under my other arm, how could I possibly look out of place?

Finally a driver stopped, picked me up and drove me back.  As I entered my new apartment, I sighed.

Welcome back to Mumbai John.  Only the unusual is usual here in India.

Fawlty Towers.

We said bye to our friendly rickshaw driver, and entered the hotel. We had already checked in before we decided to take the rickshaw down to the beach, and at first glance, the hotel seemed spacious and very normal, but what happened over the next twelve house was the furthest away from normal I had ever experience in any hotel anywhere in the world.

We had no other option than to eat in the restaurant that was connected to and was part of, the hotel.  So after showering, we were all ready sitting in a clean, small restaurant waiting for some food. We looked at the menu and not for the first time, there was nothing in English and why should there be, but we recognised most of the dishes that were on the menu and so we didn’t think that ordering food would be a big problem, but it proved more difficult than we could have imagined. When the waiter came over, I just had the feeling this was not going to be easy.  He did not seem in the least pleased to see us. We were not made to feel welcome and it was obvious this zoo had not seen any white monkeys for a long time.

“I Know nothink”

When it became time for us to order, he just wanted us to eat the complete opposite of what we wanted to order.  We wanted some chicken, he replied ‘ok you can have some vegetables’. At first we couldn’t really understand if this was for real.  We didn’t know if to get annoyed or find the whole situation funny. In the end, we just asked him to order for us, what he thought we would eat, and that was what happened. We needed to eat and food was food. All the time the waiter was telling us what we should eat, we could feel the eyes of all the other animals staring at us lonely poor white monkeys.

Before our food arrived at our table, a large family entered the restaurant and sat next to us. We tried to communicate and say hello, but we were just greeted with more stares. A further ten minutes passed and just as we anticipated, the family that had just sat next to us got their food first, and then it was our time to do the staring.

A little boy of about five years of age sat next to his mother, while a few older women sat together with two younger teenage daughters, while the men of this large family sat on a completely different table; they were too far away from us to see what they were eating. The mother had ordered some food for the son and this came to the table first, while all the other women ate together.  All four of us just could not believe what we were seeing and trying not to stare just became impossible.

The mother was using her hands and fingers only, which is normal for eating in India, but the way the feeding continued was far from normal, and the like of which I had never seen before. The young child had his mouth open all the time, and he was leaning over the table. There was no plate below his mouth and the food was picked up off the mother’s plate, balled up and pushed into the child’s mouth. The poor child was being fed so quickly that he could not chew and swallow the food in his mouth before the mother would return to her nest and fed the poor young bird more rice. The boy’s checks were popping out of his head, and the excess food was dropping from his mouth onto the bare table below. The food that hit the table was then recollected by one of the older sisters and placed back on the mother plate, that was then in turn re-fed to the child. Was this culture that we were witnessing, if so I am not sure I would want to witness it again? We all just could not keep our eyes away from looking over. Really it could only be described as being disgusting. It reminding me of one of those Japanese game shows that hit the TV in the UK in the 1980’s, where a contestant had his hands tied behind his back and with his mouth only had to eat as many noodles as he could in a certain time!

We continued to look on with amazement and when our food that the waiter had decided we should eat turned up, none of us were in the least bit hungry and we tried our best to regain some sort of appetite. Then, after a few mouthful of food that we were not sure what it was, there was a power cut, and the whole restaurant was plunged into complete darkness. It was so dark we could not see the food on our plates, but the good thing was we could no longer see the little bird being fed either. We continued to try to eat in the darkness, then because we had no vision, our sense of hearing improved. We all looked to the heavens as now all could ear was slurping sound coming from the feeding next door.

After thirty minutes or so the power returned and we paid the bill and couldn’t wait to leave the restaurant and return to our rooms. Because there are four of us, the two children and my wife and I always book two rooms when we book into a hotel. We got to the rooms, one of the keys did not provide power, when it was placed in the wall slot. We had no power, no lights etc, but no power meant no AC. So I had to go back down to the reception to report this.  After another thirty minute wait, a guy came to the room, and said that the room that we had been given had no power, so we had to change rooms. All the suit cases were moved to the room next door. Great, power, and now we could all sleep.  The man left and then we just had to make sure all our things were safely moved to the next room. When transporting all the cases to the new room, the door slammed, and because the key was in the room providing the power, we were locked out of the room with all the suit cases, looking at each other on the corridor. Another trip down to the reception and another thirty minute wait before the new room was unlocked and we could get some sleep.

The nightmare in Fawlty Towers continued and after a well-deserved sleep, it was time to return to the restaurant for breakfast.  We had a breakfast voucher that was given to us when we booked the room, which we assumed was a free breakfast, but again it wasn’t as we expected.

Us white monkeys entered the zoo’s restaurant very cautiously, we didn’t want be spotted, we didn’t want to be looked at any more.  We just wanted to eat breakfast and get back on the road. Not only did we not want to be spotted, we didn’t want to sit anywhere near the hungry bird and his mother.

The same waiter came to our table and still didn’t manage a smile, and ordered what he thought we should eat. Breakfast was eaten and we produced the voucher, he explain that it only covered juice and coffee and the rest, eggs, toast and cereal all had be paid for.

By this time, we just needed to put this whole hotel down to a bad experience and move on. We paid the extra money and returned to our rooms. Our driver, Prakash was waiting in the carpark and we were ready to move on. We packed our bags, and all I needed to do was return the keys, asthe rooms had already been paid for by credit card. So on our way down, and there was another power cut. Guess where were when this happened?  Yes in the lift.

At this point, Michelle could not hold the tears in anymore, the boys were already down with Prakash and were waiting in the car. It was only the 2nd time I had ever been caught in a lift, and the first time was not a good experience. It was jet black, and I had to try to reassure my wife that everything would be OK, but I was not convinced that it was. Then the strangest thing happened, relaxing music starting playing, and followed by the words “don’t panic don’t panic” in English. Nothing further could surprise me of my experience of this Indian Fawlty Towers. When you hear ‘don’t panic’, it some ways makes you panic more. They were obviously used to power cuts and people being trapped in the lift, as the music continued to play, the frustration levels increased.

Finally after a thirty minute wait in the dark lift, the power came back on and the lift found its way to the ground floor. Michelle just stormed out of the hotel and waited in the car, I went over to the reception and in perfect English, she said ‘everything OK with your stay sir?’

I just couldn’t reply. I just asked for the receipt, and she said ‘just one minute sir’.

Then after the minute was up and paper as long as my arm was coming out of a ticky tape machine, I could stay no longer.

‘Your minute is up’ I replied, ‘these white monkeys are escaping.’

‘Sorry sir, what was that?’

I was in the car and we left the zoo behind, never to return again.

White Monkeys on The Road

It’s amazing what you can see whilst travelling on the roads in India. We were still on holiday in Kerala, and had enjoyed visiting elephants, swimming in the sea, and living on a houseboat for two days, now it was time to return to the airport. You see lots of things traveling all different ways, but travelling by car for long distances on these roads, nothing you see seems to be a surprise.

Only In Khush India

We passed four vans playing very loud music, and Prekash informed us that it was a funeral, and judging by the amount of followers it must be someone important that has died. It turned out that the person who had just died was a very influential priest. But as we past the precession we couldn’t believe that we could actually see the dead priest sitting up in one of the vans, while people were praying at his feet, holding his hand as the van moved along the road.

Further on, and moving no more than 30 MPH, because the roads were so bad, we saw some police.

‘What’s happening?’ I asked.

‘I am not sure.’ Prekash replied.

Then we saw 30 policemen holding sticks and marching, a flash back to army days. The policeman were wearing a horrible coloured brown uniform, ironically the same as the rickshaw drivers wear back in Mumbai. Then we saw a guy with a black cloth bag over his head being led by a crowd of people and all the police. It like a scene from the deep some in USA, in the 1900s, and it even reminded me of the Klu Klak Klan.

‘What’s happen Prekash?’

‘It’s a criminal,’ he replied.

I thought maybe this sort of out of date humiliation could still have a place in the world and even in the UK.

That must hurt

Within the same journey and only a few hours later we saw another parade of people walking along the street. We asked Pretash to stop and we could see maybe 100 people some dressed in the religious orange ropes men first and the women and children following behind them. Pretash explained that these people are on a pilgrimage and are walking from temple to temple. I had seen people before walking along the side of the road, and walking as a group to take a rest at the next temple before they continue to walk for days. But somehow this parade was different. We asked Prekash to pull over at the side of the road, so we could get out of the car and take a closer look.

Then we saw something that was really odd, and even shocking. The men walkers at the front of the precession were walking very slowly, and it wasn’t until we got closer that we realised why. They had long metal poles measuring up to 2 meters long poking through both cheeks, entering in and out their months. To make it worst at the end of pole was fruit connected making the poles bend with the weight. The poles were cut into both cheeks, and the weight made me look away as to the pain this must have caused. They were walking along the road and each step made the fruit at each end wobbling causing pressure in the cheeks. Prekash said that these men will walk for miles with these sharp poles sticking out of their mouth to show the faith to their gods. It was something that we witnessed, and I am sure because of its unusual and painful to watch nature, it would be an experience we would never forget.

Finally we reached our hotel after being on the road for nearly 6 hours. It was a hotel that I will never forget, but that story deserves a blog on its own. The location was near a beach, so after checking in the hotel. We need to venture out to the local beach, all the travel guides said that the beach wasn’t that clean but we decided we go there anyway.

We found a local rickshaw that took us to the beach, and soon we were the highlight for everyone to see. We paid the driver and walked down to the beach, we wanted to swim in the Arabian Sea, and even though we had a crowd of watchers that was going to put us off. All sorts of people were coming up to us and asking for a selfie, and soon there were 30 people just staring at our white bodies swimming in the sea. Michelle was not comfortable with the situation, and I knew that this swim would not be a long one.

We soon left the beach and got a rickshaw back to the hotel, it was at this point that everyone started to approach us. Staring at us as if we were from a different planet. They had never seen a white person before, and especially not a family, we were rare in these parts. We were like rare abilnno white monkeys. It reminded me of the rare white bat, in Jims Carey’s ‘Pet detective’. Everyone wanted to take a picture of us, people approaching to take selfies, I felt like I was in a zoo. I felt I could sympathise with monkey’s sitting behind their cages and just being stared at.

The driver in the rickshaw almost had to fight the public off of us, he was a friendly driver and he protected us from the crowds. One minute I felt like I was in a zoo the next minute I felt that I was a famous film star that needed to get away from the press. We thanked the driver for helping us to get away from the crowds, and sighed a breath of relieve and we were all looking forward to getting back to the hotel for a rest.

But we were fooled, the driver wanted a piece of the white monkeys himself. As soon as we left the beach the driver was so happy that we had chosen to sit in his rickshaw and he was going to show us off. Whilst driving he would shout in Hindi to all his friend, I don’t know what he said, but something along the lines, of, look at the white monkeys I have got in the back of my rickshaw, we could not help but laugh. Several times he stop and we had to meet his cousins, brothers and uncles. After we had driven down one street, we were near a main road, where our hotel was located. But the driver wasn’t finished with us yet.

‘Would be ok if I turned around and took you back down the same road again, one more lap?’

He certainly wanted to show us off, we all smiled and agreed. It would have be a 5 minute journey back to the hotel from the beach, it took us nearly 30.

The White Monkeys return to the hotel.

Finally the driver got us back to our hotel but before saying goodbye, he himself wanted a selfie, we obliged. Finally the white monkeys, entered their zoo and it was time to rest……. However that was not the case……………………….!

Kerala: Was That an Elephant?

So, it was holiday time and we had decided to get away from the city and have a holiday in Kerala. We had got in touch with a driver that someone had recommended called Prakash, and he was there to pick us up when we arrived at the airport. We stopped off at a beer shop to get some beers to take with us to the first guest house that we had booked in advance. We arrived late and it wasn’t until the morning that we could appreciate the view from our balcony, looking out over mountains and tea plantations.

The view from the balcony

In the morning we became proper tourists and our first point of call was to check out the Jeep Night Safari. We booked a jeep and a guy was going to pick us up early afternoon and get us back to our guest house about 9.00pm so we had some time to eat before we went to bed. We realised that if we had any chance of seeing some animals in the wild, we would have wait until dusk, when we were told most of them roam free. While it was still light, the driver drove us around the tea plantations and the scenery and green hills were a wonder to see after living in Mumbai for so long.

It was a long afternoon in the jeep, and after being bumped and bashed around all day, we were starting to get tired. But not the driver: dusk was approaching and he came alive. He had been paid to take us on a night safari and that was what he was going to do. We tried to share in his enthusiasm but the tiredness, especially from the boys, was kicking in. The driver was determined to show us as many animals as he could. We especially wanted to see a wild elephant, so this thought keep us looking and keen. He knew all the quiet roads, but even the quietest of roads were full of other jeeps looking for the evening wildlife. I did wonder what animal would make itself known with jeep headlights shining in its direction all the time.

So after it just turned dusk, the driver’s enthusiasm increased, and so did our tiredness. After a further two hours of not seeing too much, except the odd bison (which became the holiday joke; every time an animal of any size or shape was seen, we would copy what the driver first shouted: ‘Bison!’).

 

Michelle asked the driver to turn back and we would call it a day. By this time Theo was asleep in the back, it had been a long day, a full day of sightseeing and we were ready for bed. But the driver would not listen: wild elephant was all he was talking about and that’s all he wanted to show us. Michelle decided to sit up front with the driver, firstly because she felt sick being bumped about in the back of the jeep, secondly because she was feeling cold and thirdly, most importantly, to try to convince the driver to take us home. But he still wasn’t listening.

‘There is one more national park, sure elephants’ he said.

‘OK, one more,’ we agreed; after all it would be fantastic to see an elephant in the wild.

‘How far to this national park?’ I asked.

‘Only 10 km – will be there in no time, then I am sure elephants’.

 

We drove into the national park, the road was new and so much better than the roads we had been bumping around on for nearly three hours. I thought, maybe the elephants prefer new tarmac to walk on.

Then Andrew, who had not said anything for hours, and to be honest I thought was asleep like Theo was, started to come to live and get excited.

‘I can smell elephants,’ he said full of enthusiasm.

‘Ha’ the driver agreed.

I was thinking I can’t’ but I didn’t know what an elephant would smell like anyway. So for a 12 year old boy to be able to smell an elephant and I couldn’t, I was a bit confused. But I just went along with it.

‘Smell it?’ Andrew asks again

‘Yes,’ I said but I am not sure what sort of smell I should be trying to smell. Then the whole jeep including Theo that had just woke up started sniffing, it was something like out of a comedy scene.

‘It sort of comes, then goes again,’ Andrew continued.

‘Does it?’ I thought.

The driver piped up, ‘sure elephant, ha.’

‘Definitely elephant,’ Andrew said.

‘Yes, elephant,’ replied the driver, who by now was happy to have another member in the jeep sharing in his determination to see an elephant.

Michelle and I just looked at each other. Where?

Then the silence hit amongst the odd bit of sniffing, and we just all looked out of the jeep and into the wilds, but really all we could see was dark, and forest. This silence continues for about 20 minutes.

 

Then the silence is broken and we all jump.

‘I can smell elephant poo,’ Andrew bellows.

‘I think that is mummy’s hair,’ I replied

Michelle looks back from the front seat, and doesn’t even reply to such a low level poor joke.

But, then I agree I can smell it too.

‘Yes, elephants,’ the driver shouts.

Then a motor bike comes in the opposite direction flashing his lights. The driver stops and talks to the guy on the motor bike and all I can hear is the word elephant. He drives off and our driver drove on.

‘Elephant,’ he says again.

‘Where I ask?’

‘In front,’ the driver replies as he seems to hold the steering wheel tighter. Could this be the big moment?

‘How many?’ I ask.

‘Only one, up in front’

I am thinking if I don’t see a herd I will settle for one. Even Theo is now fully awake.

‘Where are the elephants?’ he asks.

‘In front, and there is only one,’ I say before the driver can answer.

Then the silence starts all over again, no speaking, even the sniffing for elephant poo has stopped, because now we can all smell it. We’re all looking out of the jeep’s windows, hoping to see an elephant.

Then the same conversation starts again, ‘I can smell it, yes elephant, where is the elephant?’

This goes on for another 20 minutes and I am trying not to laugh at the strange situation we all find ourselves in, in some jeep, in the dark, trying to find an elephant. Then we see it.

‘Over there,’ the driver yells

‘Where?’ we all say at once.

He stops the jeep is this the moment of seeing our first elephant in the wild?

No, is the answer. The driver stops and show us the elephant poo, but no elephant. We have missed our chance.

Then it is then a 3 hour bumpy ride back to the hotel.

So, NO elephant, NO dinner because it was too late to eat. NO ice for the beer I had bought earlier. So NO to a warm beer, NO to a late night snack. But yes to bed, and to see our first elephant in the wild we will have to wait for another day.

 

No warm beer for me, trying to chill in a bucket of water.

Paint Brushes

 

It was the first time since being here that I physically could not get on to the train to travel to the slum school. I had always managed to fight my way on and push my way away from the doors into the safety of the carriage. But not so today, it was too busy. I knew there was no point in trying to embark the train without being in the dangerous position of hanging out of the door. I had to let two train pass before there was enough room for me to get on.

 

 

When I arrived at the school the children were already there, I was late. But not only was I late, but Marie hadn’t arrived either. I entered the classroom; all the children stood up and said good morning and then just sat back down again. They were just sitting there waiting for the teacher to arrive, some were reading, some were writing but most were just sitting on the floor waiting. There was hardly any noise and no talking. I was amazed. I couldn’t help comparing this back to the UK. I remember you would not dare leave the class for less than a minute without running the risk of something bad happening in an unsupervised class. It was a total pleasure to witness. These children had just been sitting there patiently waiting for over 20 minutes. Sheetal, the cleaner that lived next door, had just open the classroom and told them to wait for their teacher and that’s what they were doing.

 

Children playing outside the classroom.

 

Marie finally arrived, and explained there had been a strike, and students were protesting their rights by laying down on the railway track, hence the delay. I then realised that’s why I had found it so difficult to get on a train myself. I then thought about the students laying on the track.  Wow! that is some way to protest, but then nothing surprises me any more in this wonderful country.

It was Diwali, the celebration of light. This is the largest holiday in the Indian calendar, and these people really love a colour festival. The school had brought in sweets, snacks and crisps to help the celebrations on their way. A sweet and a snack, at a time of celebration is as important as Santa is at Christmas.

 

Diwali in the slum

 

The whole slum was transformed into streets of colour, large music stands were set up everywhere. People were getting ready for the big day with dance and music and light.

 

Here in the classroom, after stepping over all the crisps and sweets, we were making the same effort. Children had already drawn and made posters and coloured lanterns out of paper. But today, there were going to paint a clay Diwali light holder, which the school had provided for each child. I had seen these clay candle holders being sold on the streets, there was thousands of them, they cost less than 10 pence each.

Children were keen to get painting, and they were getting excited. They don’t often get the chance to paint, and the last time they had used a paint brush was a year ago, doing the same activity.

I was keen to join in so I had my unpainted tea light holder ready to make colourful.

Marie then sat the children into groups of 8 children, and distributed the paint and water. There were only three colours pink, white and yellow. I am not sure why these colours were chosen, but every class could only have 3 colours. I help to separate the colours into small pots so the children could get ready to start painting.

The children just sat in circles waiting, so they could get all the equipment they needed to start painting. This reminded me again of teaching art back in the UK, except it couldn’t have been more different. These children were just waiting for everything to be given to them before they started to paint. In the UK, you would have to prepare all the stuff ready in advance, because the children would find it very difficult to sit and wait while you got everything ready. They would expect to start as soon as they knew what they had to do. But not here – the children just sat in silence waiting for the teacher to get it already and then they would start, and not before.

So the children had their clay tea light holders, they had the paint and water, the only thing missing was the paint brushes.

‘Marie I think they are ready to start painting, where are the paint brushes? I will hand them out’

‘They are on my chair’, she replied.

Remember that the teachers, just like the students, had no desk or cupboards.

So I walked over to the chair and there were 10 paint brushes. I looked at the class and there was 40 children, give or take a few, all sitting in groups of 8.

‘Marie, there are only 10 brushes here, where are the rest of them?’

‘That all we have,’ she replied. As if to say ‘that’s enough.

Maths was a subject that I was quite good at school and even teaching it. I looked at the half eaten brushes on the chair, and worked it out – that meant 1 paint brush for every 4 children. So each group, of 8 children had 2 paint brushes.

 

‘Marie, how will this work, there are not enough paint brushes for everyone to paint?’

‘What do you mean,’ she said puzzled by my question.

‘How can they paint if they have not got a paint brush?’ An obvious question I thought, well that’s what I thought.

‘They will share’ she replied.

I handed two paint brushes to each group, and took a back seat, and just watched. Wow, I was blown away, I had never seen anything like this in my 20 years of teaching. And it is something that I will never forget. Marie was so right; they did share. They sat in the circle.  One child would paint in one colour, and then after they had finished, pass the brush onto the child sitting next to them in the circle, so 8 children were sharing 2 brushes. There was no arguing and each child just sat waiting patiently until a brush was passed to them.

So their work might have taken a bit longer to complete, but at the end of the lesson, every child had painted their tea light holder in pink, yellow and white. I had also managed to sit with a group and joined in with the sharing of a paint brush.

I still have my painted Diwali tea light holder, and every time I look at it, I think of sharing. And how amazing these children are, and how much I have learnt. But I still wouldn’t try this back in a UK classroom.

Rice Drive

Raising money for the poorer children in India is something that I had become passionate about. So when Michelle’s school was organising a rice drive to another slum area, I was more than keen to help out.

The idea was that the school would be collecting rice for a few weeks before and then, through a charity organisation that one of the teachers was involved in, The Robin Hood Foundation, the rice would be distributed to a slum area. This turned out to be a great experience, if not sad, not just for me, but for all the family. Andrew and Theo were very much part of the distribution.

Rice was brought into Michelle’s school from in any way the children could get it. There was a competition set up in school, for the house that could bring in the most rice. We donated and the hotel, where we were staying, The Jewel of Chembur, also donated. The amount of rice that was collected was phenomenal. It was all stored in a cool room next to the office, and when I saw the amount rice that had been brought in, I was blown away. After it was all collected, it was then sorted by the students into 1kg manageable bags ready to be distributed. This was hard work, some students were selected to weigh the mountain of rice and put the rice in small sealable bags. Both Andrew and Theo were keen to be involved in the whole process.

So after a busy Sunday morning taking the boys to football, the afternoon was the time we were all to meet to give the rice out. We all meet at Michelle’s school, and the older children, some year 10s and above were in charge of the operation. Andrew and Theo, being teacher’s sons, got the privilege to join in as well. All the teachers from Michelle’s school were expected to go, and so we all met up at the school and loaded the rice onto the mini bus.

We were going to a slum area which had developed by the side of a main road. These places are sadly plentiful here in Mumbai, and I had passed so many over my time here. Developed on waste land by the side of roads, or under large road bridges to provide shelter from the rain. Really homeless people that have teamed up through families that develop into communities. They then expand into slums. This is when in the past, the government have got involved, and have tried to clean the streets up and move these people in purpose built areas, making sure these poor people are hidden from society. The slum area where I teach is one such area.

But before these people are asked to move on, a community is formed. House are shacks, made from any material people can find to provide shelter. Corrugated iron for the walls, usually blue polythene sheets for the roofs. I have even seen whole families and up to ten people sleeping in abandon cars, and why not – at least it is dry. Just like any first settlement, even if these slums are formed by the side of the road, there is usually a river close by or even attached to the back of the dwellings. Sometime to provide water for washing, but ironically usually for sanitation. So any washing would happen upstream from the flow or direct sewage. This was quite shocking the first time I saw a river next to a slum, but this never shocked me as much of the amount of rubbish just left in the rivers. So with the amount of human rubbish thrown into the river, this stops its flow. Then with no flow, the river can’t deal with amount of human sewage and thus stops becoming a river and just turns into a human dumping ground, if you pardon the very unfortunate pun.

This really is a river

Where we stopped to drop the rice was a typical example of one of these areas, and when I exited the bus, I was trying to peek through shacks to see if I could see a river or a stream, and there was one, running along the back of the shacks that were on a very fast and busy road.

Erin was the teacher that was organise the rice drive and she is from Australia. Like myself, she had really thrown herself into helping the poorer people of Mumbai, and had got involved with this charity that organised regular rice drops all over Mumbai. The plan was that we didn’t just turn up and give these people rice otherwise they would see it just as charity.  There had to be a focus, so the children in the slum would come out, and all the teachers and the selected children from the school would do some educational work with them first. So the adults of the slum took a back seat, while we all left the bus, and tried to find some street children that we could teach. We were all armed with pencils and work sheets, with mainly number and maths work to do. The children in the slum were aware that they had to do some educational work before they were given any rice. It was obvious that the charity had used this system before, and all the children were keen to sit with us, and the year 10 students from the school to learn. I was told later that if the rice was given out first, the children would just run back into the slums and not do any work at all!

This was a sad situation.  They had to do some learning, before the rice was given out. I realised that these children in the slum never went to school and at least this way, some education was being provided by this charity. I did wonder how much good an hour’s teaching from a worksheet would help these children, but then I guess it was better than just turning up and giving out rice.

I walked around, taught a few groups of children, but we let the year 10 students take the lead. I watched both of my sons Andrew and Theo, and they were totally engaged in helping these slum children. Maybe one day, they might become teachers like myself and my wife. I was sort of hoping maybe not, but that’s a different story.

 

I explored around and looked into the slum to compare it with the slum areas I was working in. And to be fair there was a physical difference, but the poverty was evident here just the same as in the slum I teach.

Two ladies were sitting patiently on the floor sorting grains of corn individually, I have seen this many times before, and I was impressed at how these women could sit for hours talking and selecting their edible grains. It would be something that you could easily see happening in Africa, not India.

Other young boys came on their bikes from, I’m assuming, another slum to see what was going with all of us white people teaching at the side of the road. Where they there to learn? My guess was they were there simply to collect some free rice. One boy was wearing an old Manchester United top, that by looking at and remembering the kit, must have been at least 15 years old. I wonder where he got it and how long he had been wearing it?  All the children that were learning were really dirty, something that I have just got used to seeing, but just another sign of the poverty they faced on a daily basis.

After maybe 40 minutes of working on the floor of a busy road teaching maths, it was time to stop and hand out the rice. This is when the whole situation changed. These slum children had come out of their dwellings to be taught by a lot of strange people, and now they wanted their payment. The whole mini bus was loaded with rice, and looking at the size of this roadside slum, I didn’t think not having enough food would be the problem. But distributing it was, the charity leader and Erin and a few game teachers, including me set up a few stations where the children could come and collected their free bag of rice. Lines formed quickly and the stronger of us adults had to stop the children just running to the station and collecting as much food as they could to return to their parents in the slum. Two lines were formed, girls and boys. They were stopped 10 metres away from the rice and only two children were allowed to then collect their bag of rice from the year 10 students, including Andrew and Theo who were physically giving the rice to the children.

This was a sad situation, and could only be compared to giving out food to poor people during a war, or a disaster like a famine or earthquake. But this was none of those reasons: just people being poor and needing help.

 

All was ok for a while, but the eagerness of the starving children got harder and harder to control. These children were finding any way they could get to front of the line. One of the charity leaders had decided that the girls should go first, so there were young boys at the age of 6 queuing up with the girls looking down at the floor, so it was difficult for the leaders to determine if they were girls or boys. This did make me smile. A simple cunning plan being adopted at such a young age, gave insight into some of the ways had I had experience from adults here in India. In a poor country, you have to think on your feet to make sure you can survive, and good on them, it is so much better than using physically violence or theft to survive.

The lines were becoming busier and busier, more children lining up. Nearly double the amount of children were lining up compared to the children that were taught. Boys pretending they were girls to get their rice first was just the start of it.

Children were now pushing nearer to the front of the line. It was sad to be involved in such an experience, I was thinking there must be a better way to distribute the rice to these people. But the leader told us that they had tried many ways and learnt from experience. Only the children can collect the rice because there was more chance of being able to physically hold them back, whereby it wouldn’t be possible if the adults were collecting. Also the line is stopped away from where the rice is being distributed, otherwise it becomes a free for all and gets really dangerous.

More and more children joined the line making it harder and harder for us to hold them back. There must have been now over 100 children lining up collect their rice. I was now becoming more and more involved and trying to stop the children from running around the back of the line and going straight for the prize. It was mentally and physically demanding. I looked at both Andrew and Theo, and neither was shying back, and they were both at the front of the distribution station. It made me proud that they could be involved in such an experience, and to see them totally emerged into what they were doing, helping these poor children.

After about 10 minutes of these distribution I could tell that the charity leaders were losing control and it was turning into a frenzy. They knew that they would have to take away the rice soon, get all of teachers back into the mini bus and call it a day.

One boy had lined up with the girls and tried to get his rice. He was then sent to the back of the boys’ line, but somehow, he had got himself to the front of the boys line and then got his rice. Three minutes later, he was back at the front of the boys’ line again, realising he couldn’t pass as a girl. I noticed him, and smiled. I figured everyone had got their rice, so why not try again. He got through the charity leaders and was successful in gaining his second bag. He then tried a third time, and this time he was spotted. But that didn’t stop this 7 year old. He then went back into the slum, gave the rice to his family, and believe it or not, he returned again. I found this determine little guy to be a delight to watch. He was clever; he had not passed as a girl, but that didn’t put him off. He had collected two bags of rice and then got recognised and this had not put him off either. He was like the tale of the determined spider that keeps falling and climbing the same wall.

Here’s the clever little fellow

But he had succeed again, he had returned from his slum dwelling this time wearing a different bright yellow coloured top, and he had fooled the charity leaders and he had got through and claimed his third bag of rice. I smiled at him and he smiled back. A survivor, a leader and so determined to make the most for him and family from this rice drive.

I approached him, he thought I was going to take his third bag of rice away from him, but I just shook his hand. We all got on the bus with loads of rice still left, but that could be distributed again another day and somewhere else.

Chipmunks

 

 

 

When I am not working in the slum, the rest of my time is taken up being a Dad and looking after the family. Shopping for the food, preparing the dinner and running the boys to football twice a week.

I would collect the boys from the school after taking the rickshaw from home, and waiting at their school for them to finish. We had many funny and unusual experiences when travelling from the school by taxi to the location where they trained for football. Remember my previous blog about a funny taxi driver?

On this occasion I had arrived early at school, and had about 30 minutes to kill before the boys had finished school. I went over to a small corner shop where I have been buying the chapattis and I sometimes treat myself to a can of diet coke. The guy in the shop is always friendly and like most people in India, is fascinated as to why I am here in a suburb of Mumbai. Over the weeks, we have got know each other, and if he is not too busy selling his produce, his English is good enough for us to have a friendly if not cheap conversation.

I left his shop with about 20 minutes still to go before the boys finished school. So I was in no rush to cross the normally dangerous road to get to the school. I stopped just outside the shop and had a moment to myself, whilst drinking my cold Diet Coke. I found a corner outside a hairdressers and I couldn’t help notice a large bag of rubbish in a tree. It puzzled me. It was obvious that this bag of rubbish has been placed in the tree. It was over 20 feet overhead, so I wondered firstly how someone had placed this rubbish in the tree, and secondly, why anyone would want to place any rubbish in the tree. I took a photo and thought again ‘only in Khush India’. I was soon joined by a man who just looked up to the tree with me, and said something in Hindi that I couldn’t understand. How odd, I thought and we both just stared at this elevated large bag of rubbish. I said the simple question ‘Why?’ But he didn’t understand.

 

Rubbish in the tree

 

A third guy joined us in the head-raising looking-up process, and then a small boy. So all four of us were looking up a tree at this large bag of rubbish. I spoke again, thinking this was more than just an odd situation, but my language wasn’t understood, so a few gestures were thrown into the communication but still no one explained why this rubbish was placed 20 foot high in a tree on a busy street.

Then I noticed a chipmunk. The two guys and the small boy all started nodding. Was the bag of rubbish deliberately placed in the tree for the chipmunks? The chipmunks were having a feast so I can only assume it was. I smiled at the two guys and the young boy, laughed and walked on, as if it was just another normal thing to see. I know in India the people feed and look after the roaming and wild animals that walk the streets, such as the cows, dogs and birds. But I was surprised that they would go to this much effort to feed the chipmunks, or was the rubbish place in the tree for another reason?

 

That was not my only encounter with the chipmunks here in Mumbai. I was always fascinated by their agile abilities, and their cheeky personalities. I would often see them running across pathways and moving from tree to tree where they would always seem to have less difficulties in crossing the road than myself. You would see them everywhere: on roadsides, climbing buildings, and they always seemed to put a smile on my face. They seemed somehow more friendly and cleaner than their cousin, the rat. They can be described as similar to the chipmunks you would see in the USA. Grey in colour, with stripes of brown and black markings down its back. In the UK, they are smaller than the grey squirrel with a much thinner face. Here in India, they call them squirrels, but because of the stripe, for me, they will always been known as chipmunks.

A few months after seeing the chipmunks feasting on the rubbish placed in a tree, I had a more memorable experience involving these wonderful little creatures.

Our apartment is situated on the fourth floor, and surrounded by trees, so seeing these chipmunks from our balcony is a regular daily occurrence. We had almost got used to the way they communicated to each other, with a high pitch shrieking sound, which at first we thought was a bird. Every morning, this shrieking sound would permeate through the closed windows, into our bedroom and wake us up.

It was a normal day for me – working in the slum, jumping on a train and then in a rickshaw to get home. I was tired and the heat was taking its toll on me. I walked into the apartment and sat down at the table and soaked up the wonders of air conditioning. I started writing my diary of the day’s events while it was still fresh in my mind.  I looked up towards the kitchen where I thought something had caught my eye. I stopped and thought I had seen something run across the kitchen floor. I continued to write again, but out of my peripheral vision, I saw something again. Was that a rat?

I got out of my seat and went to investigate, but before I reached the kitchen, something small ran under my feet into the lounge. It was a chipmunk and by the size of it, it was a baby. Without realising what I was doing, in panic, I found myself chasing the poor little chipmunk around the whole apartment. I stopped when the little creature had found refuge behind the sofa. I knew I was scaring it and that I had to think of a plan how I could help this little baby out of the apartment and back to its family.

I waited and worked out a plan, I needed to get this chipmunk into a room that had a balcony. Then when it felt ready, it could go back out into the outside world and join its family. After a while, the chipmunk poked this head out from behind the sofa and just by pure luck, fled to our bedroom. Great. I closed the bedroom door and opened the balcony door for it to move on. I left it under our bed, and when I returned, my plan had worked.  It was sitting, hanging or balancing with its sharp claws upside down, on the outside wall of the balcony. Panic over, well not completely. I kept returning to the window and it had not moved for over an hour. It was obviously lost and didn’t know how to move on. I thought about how it had come into our apartment and the only way in was through a hole in the kitchen window. The kitchen was on the other side of the apartment from our bedroom, and so it didn’t know how to get back to its home.

It stayed there all night and all the time, made a high pitched shrieking noise I assume, to try to communicate that it was lost. I did think about trying to chase it back through the apartment and out of the kitchen the way it had come, but thought maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

 

 

Again, in the morning I went to work and when I returned, it was still on the balcony. I collected the boys from school and when we returned to the apartment, something quite amazing happened that we were all so lucky to see.

Another chipmunk had join our little friend and was sort of playing with it on the rail of the balcony. We stayed silent and watched. At first we thought that this little chipmunk was mating with its newly joined friend, but then we realised that the new chipmunk was nearly double its size. It had to be his mother. They were wrestling each other, and at times it was scary to watch, thinking that the poor baby might lose its balance and full to its death.

 

It seemed that the mother was trying to get the baby to hang onto her back and she was going to climb the walls back around the outside of the building and back home. But the little baby was not finding this technique too easy, and kept falling off.  After about 10 minutes of this technique not working, we witnessed something that I have never seen before, and I probably will never see again. The mother picked the baby up with its teeth, just like a cat would do with its kitten, and carried it along the rail of the balcony and back to its home.

We all smiled at each other feeling privileged to witness such a caring action here in our own apartment in crowded Mumbai.

Dark Classroom

 

Today I arrived at the slum and I was told that my teaching skills were required elsewhere on the slum. I had no problem with that, except I had no real idea where any of the other classrooms were.

Marie told me not to worry as two children would take me there. So I left the classroom and followed two 12 year old girls out onto the street. I dodged holes in the ground, rubbish, mud and filth. I almost tread on a dead rat that was being eaten by flies, but manoeuvred my feet away from in just in time.

 

I arrived at my new classroom; the children were just as keen to meet me there as they were in Marie’s classroom. I met the teacher; her name was Misty, she was calm and you could tell the children had a lot of respect for her. Her English wasn’t as good as Marie’s, but I was sure we would get on just fine. She was so pleased to have an English teacher coming into her classroom and helping her teach English.

The classroom was even smaller than Marie’s, and there was no natural light at all. There was one small strip light that didn’t have the energy to even lighten a quarter of the classroom. I taught yet another lesson on grammar, and when I finished, the children all clapped me, without any persuasion from the teacher. I again felt that humbling feeling that I have not experienced anywhere nearly as much as I do teaching in this slum.

 

I left the classroom again, chaperoned back to Marie’s classroom. Not one word was spoken between me and my two 8 year old girl leaders. Except a ‘thank you, sir’.

I returned to Marie’s classroom and the children had all finished for the morning. Marie was sitting in the classroom marking books so I enquired about Colin.

‘Where’s Colin, I haven’t seen him today?’

‘He is in his home’ Marie replied.

I found him outside in his basket, which is less than 100cm in diameter with a dirty towel covering him up. I lifted the towel and had a sneaky look, and I noticed the red stop straight away, I was then blown away by the horrible chicken smell, which is hard to describe, but if you have smelt a chicken smell, you will know how bad it is.

‘Why is he not allowed to run freely, like he was the other day’ I asked

Marie explained that he could jump over the balcony and fly away. I was thinking ‘poor old Colin’ – he didn’t look capable of that. She said that Neva must keep him safe.

‘I know the dog might have him,’ I responded.

‘No, the children on the compound will steal him’

‘Why, would they do that?’

‘To eat him,’ Marie explained, with an uncomfortable look on her face.

The next day I returned and there seemed to be some tension gathering concerning what classroom I should be teaching in. I settled this problem and offered to cut my time and teach in both for the same amount of time. However this is not strictly true, I do spend more time in Marie’s class, because this was the first class I taught in the slum and I have built up a strong relationship with these classes.

But today I am again transported back to the Dark Classroom by two different students. Really by now I should be able to remember how to get to this classroom. I was met by my new class, and they were shouting their excitement as I entered the classroom. Misty was also very pleased that I was now helping in her classroom on a regular basis. I walked in and took my shoes off, as part of the tradition, and in some way, it seems more enforced in this classroom compared to Marie’s.

Misty started the lesson, and I noticed she seems to have a more difficult job that Marie, this being in the difference in the age of the children. There seemed to be children as young as five and others as old as 10. Misty has done her utmost to differentiate the needs of the children and had almost spilt the class into two classes within the same room. The youngsters were learning their ABC’s and the older children were learning grammar and punctuation. In a way I felt that I could teach the older ones, whilst Misty taught the younger ones.

 

Outside Dark Classroom.

While Misty was teaching and I was not yet involved, I looked out of the door which lead to a dark corridor onto the street. This classroom was on the ground floor, and as I said earlier, there were no windows. Whilst looking out of the door, I noticed the rain had started, and with this being the monsoon season, that was not unusual, but it just added to the darkness of this classroom. I felt sad, and almost depressed at the lack of light, but again it was only my feelings, not the children’s. I could hear their enthusiasm for learning as my attention was taking me away from the classroom along the corridor and out onto the street. I heard a gathering of people, and I asked permission from Misty to leave the classroom, I wanted to investigate what was going on outside. She smiled and agreed.

Directly outside the classroom, which again was just one room rented in a tower block, there was a shop. A sweet shop, also selling 100 of Indian snacks, crisps and bread. I did notice this shop when I walked into the dark classroom for the first time, and I thought I would use as a landmark so that eventually, I would be able to remember how to get to and from the two classrooms I was teaching in.

But this shop wasn’t the place of the gathering. Next to the shop was a small room, it could be described as a store. Here there was a line of about 20 people of all ages, old women in their 70s and young children of the age of 7.

 

I stayed under shelter watching as it was now raining hard and the people that were queuing were soaked through to the skin. I ventured out into the rain to see why all these people were queuing. What were they queuing for that was so important that getting wet didn’t matter?

I looked onto the floor and the rain was washing away all the dirt and filth from the street, carrying it and dumping somewhere else further down the slum. I saw a playing card, the 9 of diamonds floating, sweet wrappers, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles and even dead rats floating past.

 

I was now soaking wet myself and I was wondering why and how I had found myself out here in the street when I should be teaching in the classroom. I smelt the rain and the smell was certainly better than the smells you experience here on a hot day.

I focused back on the queue of people, and as I walked closer, I recognised a boy that I had taught in the class the day before.

‘Hello sir’ he said, as he waited in the rain.

‘Hello’ I said back.

I knew his English was not that good, so it would have been pointless asking why he was queuing outside this store in the middle of a monsoon. I stood with him for a while and he smiled at me.

Some people were holding umbrellas, other were just getting wet. But all of them were holding something in there hands. It was a ticket of some sort, and I only noticed it more when the people were getting nearer to the front of the queue. This boy who was about 7 was holding one too, it was yellow in colour. I pushed my head over the queuing people (which is not easy when height isn’t on your side) and I saw people getting their yellow tickets ready to be examined as they got closer to the store.

Then I realised, the reason it was so important for people to queue in the middle of the monsoon, was that they were there queuing for food. These yellow tickets were ration tickets and they were queuing for their rations.

I followed the boy to the front of the que and he showed his ticket and paid 10 rupees for a massive bag of rice, so heavy he could hardly carry. I helped him take it away from the store. There was probably enough rice here to keep his family alive for a whole month. Rice is so important here in India and in any poor country, it’s the only way to support and feed the many poor people.

By now the boy and I were both completely soaked. I held the rice for him and he wanted to take it from me, of which I totally understood. He walked off with the rice on his shoulder, I smiled and indicated that I was going back to class.

‘Yes, sir’ he said

I returned to my new dark classroom a bit shocked at what I had just seen, but also a bit embarrassed about how wet I was. The children just looked up, smiled and continued with their learning.

I shook myself dry and spoke to Misty who was now sitting on the floor, teaching the younger children. She said because of the rain there were not too many older children here today, but they could turn up at any moment. Again, my teaching expertise was going to be used on teaching yet another grammar lesson. I sat on the floor, thinking it is so dark in here I can hardly see, how can the children learn anything? I was sitting there and I had no more than 5 students to teach, 4 girls and one boy. I was just about to start teaching when the boy that I had been standing in the rationing queue walked into the classroom, just as wet as me. Soon another 4 boys followed, all soaking wet. I was thinking had they all been given their job to collect the rationed rice before they were to come to school?

Misty looked over from where she was sitting with younger children and asked one of the girls to go to the cupboard. I was just thinking this could be fun, teaching a lesson on nouns in English to a group of children I had only met once before, that couldn’t understand English. But the girl return from the cupboard with a large box. This saved the day.

 

The girl open the box, it was a puzzle. Well, it was a collection of different puzzles all mixed together, which sadly included some rat’s poo. So, this dark classroom was no different there from Marie’s, they both had rat problems. Without speaking, the sorting had begun, all of us wet boys sat together, gathering pieces of an animal puzzle, while the girls collected pieces of a Disney puzzle. Hindi and English was spoken for the animals we formed together.

I couldn’t think of a better way for dealing with a language problem and for a teacher to get to know their students. Puzzles, with rat poo, soaked clothing, in a monsoon and in a very dark classroom.

 

I couldn’t wait to come back to teach these children again!

 

 

Sweat

 

A day of sight-seeing was arranged by Michelle. It was good to get away from the pressure of school. Us and the other ex-pats were meeting up, and were travelling by train to see some more sights of central Mumbai. I will remember some of the sights that I saw, but not as much as the train journey into central Mumbai.

It was not the first time that myself and the ex-pats had used the train, but it seemed however experienced you were at using this method of transport, you never seemed to get used to it.

The ex-pats ladies (and Theo) used the ladies compartment which was, at least, a little bit more civilised, while the ‘die hards’, Andrew and I, had to fight it out in the men’s carriage – cattle class!

We squeezed on finding our way under peoples’ arm pits to make sure we were away from the open doors, and any danger of falling out of the moving train. I remember a sketch from the comic Ben Elton, where he said ‘have to get a double seat’. Well, no chance of that on these trains; to get even a part of a seat is an achievement.

I had noticed on entering the train that I was sweating.  Not normal sweating, but sweating really badly. I had noticed that my legs and shorts were soaked, soaked so bad that it looked like I had been sitting in a puddle for ten minutes. I managed to grab a metal bar in the train to stabilise myself from all the rocking of the moving train. I held the metal bar firmly, and I noticed sweat was running down my forearm. I managed to get Andrew a part of a seat on the aisle, while I remained standing and sweating.

I noticed a young Muslim guy had pushed his way forward and was indicating for me to move over so that he could sit down. I looked at him.  He offered me a hope that there might be a chance of a seat, as he continued to jockey his way down the aisle of the train. He looked at me and smiled. He had a dyed orange beard and was wearing a white cap called a taqiyah. I tapped him on the shoulder because he looked uncomfortable about pinching the available seat from under my eyes. He looked up, but when I looked at him, smiled and indicated that he should take the seat, I think he was both happy and surprised.  A few minutes passed and I noticed that the sweat on my forearms was increasing, but now it seemed it had a place to go. It was running off of my arm, down onto my hand, leaving my body and dripping on this poor guy’s head that I had just offered my seat to. I was embarrassed. I sort of grinned through clenched teeth and apologised, he was uncomfortable that my sweat was hitting him, but sort of accepted my apology. Well not really, he was embarrassed too, he thought perhaps the only way he could move from my line of fire was to further squeeze up on the seat to allow me to sit down. And that’s what he did, we all moved along, ‘and the little one said move over’. He thought that this would be the answer to stop the embarrassment of my sweat problem, however he was wrong. I sat down next to him. Andrew was the other side of him. After a few more minutes, he looked down at his garment that was touching my shorts, and yes, it was wet. He tried to move away from my puddle-making machine but he was trapped, nowhere to go and nowhere to hide, he was going to get wet and there was nothing he could do to stop this happening. I just looked down to the floor, further embarrassed about the amount of liquid that was being released from my body.

Social hierarchy, careers or money count for nothing in biology. Sweat is sweat, and this leakage was good ole whiteman’s, English sweat.

It made me think more about sweat, and after years of teaching PE to children, I have said never be embarrassed when you sweat, especially young girls. It is a totally natural mechanism that your body is programmed to do. To release water from your body to cool you down. However Michelle always says that women and girls don’t sweat they just perspire.

Whatever way you think about sweat, you certainly have a good chance to witness it here, on an overcrowded train in 40 plus degrees heat in the middle of Mumbai. It’s also a true fact that the odour we produce can only be smelt after it has dried out, and that can take up to be over two hours. But on this train judging by the smells, people must have sweated previously. It was almost like animal warfare, where all the smells of sweat were competing to take the prize of being the one everyone noticed.

I thought further, whilst I was sitting there sweating, there are three ways you can deal with this natural response of sweating. I will name them.

 

The Wipers

 

The best, the most efficient and most civilised way to deal with sweat is to wipe it. A cloth or a flannel is carried and you use the cloth to simply wipe your brow. Even using your shirt sleeve or any part of your clothing can be put into this category.

 

 

The Paw-er

 

This is for the forgetful person, who has forgotten to bring a cloth with them. The sweat is running down your face and you have to use your hand to stop the sweat continuing on its journey. I am sure we have all employed this method sometime in our lives. There are various ways which you can use this paw-er method. The most common is the hand, but sometimes in restricted space, an arm or even the triceps can be used. For the posh amongst us, it is OK to use the finger, for some reason people that use their fingers to remove their sweat think they can be excused for forgetting to bring a cloth. The most common is the forefinger, and it is gently employed with calm and precision, and moved along the eye brow stopping the sweat from dripping into the eye. For those even posher you can adopt your little finger, but be aware if anyone is watching, as it does look rather stupid.

 

 

The third way is the ……………

Leaver or Dripper

 

 

This brings me back to the present, and I am now witnessing this method on the train, right in front of my eyes. To choose this method to deal with runaway sweat is beyond any comprehension. To just to let sweat to run off of your body and do nothing about it, can be perceived of either complete control or torture. I am sitting next to my new wet Muslim friend and I am observing a ‘leaver’ straight in front of me. He was porting stubble; maybe this was part of his plan, as this partial beard could soak up the sweat or help it decide which path each drop of sweat would follow on its full journey.

He was holding a phone and was wearing head phones: was he a ‘leaver’ by choice or was he not aware of it because he was in deep concentration? Either way, it was soon to be proved this guy was certainly a leaver. The sweat had started its journey and just like a river starts its journey in the mountains, the sweat had started on this guy’s forehead. Droplets were forming, the first stages of the ‘leavers’ process. As the droplets gained in volume, the weight started them in motion, this early stage can easily be converted. This would be the first opportunity to move from a ‘leaver’ and change to a ‘paw-er’ or a ‘wiper’, but to leave the ‘leavers’ process, action is required. Movement of a limb or clothes needs to be employed, this is the time to do something about the sweat forming on your face. I say to myself, just wipe it, paw it, and remove it. But no, he was a ‘leaver’.

The stream was starting to turn into a river, gravity helping it on its course. The droplets started to move around his eyes. This must be the time when concentration is broken, sweat in the eyes hurts. He must wipe or paw. But no, he was a ‘leaver’.

The river entered out of its youthful stage and increased in width. The droplets were visible from anywhere on the train. They picked up speed and ran down his nose, ‘wipe it please’. But no, he was a ‘leaver’.

Finally a droplet stopped, like a river taking a rest before it enters the sea. The droplet had stop right on the end of this guy’s nose. How could he not feel that, how could he let it rest there. Was this control, torture or complete madness? I stared at him with my observation glasses full on, my mouth wide open, I even felt myself leaning forward to get a closer look as I look up from my seated position. He was oblivious to what this single droplet had achieved; it had made it to his nose, whereas if he was a wiper, the droplet would have been a long time dead. This droplet had moved from its original purpose of cooling his body, to now being very annoying. It was painful to watch. But not for this guy – he was a ’leaver’.

So the droplet rested on this guy’s nose. I started to move my head in anticipation that the droplet of sweat would soon leave this guy’s body, just like my sweat had done earlier and hit the Muslim guy on the head. I could only think of the time in a circus when the whole crowd goes completely silent, just before the acrobat achieves his final finale. The droplet now seemed that it had been in position on the end of this guy’s nose for an eternity. It had been there too long, maybe the droplet was like its owner, maybe the droplet was a ‘leaver’ too.

A train full of sweaty people and I am the only person now watching this ‘leaver’ and his droplet. “Come on please wipe it free, please paw it off, come be like the rest of us on the train, and come on be normal”. But no he was a ‘leaver’ and the droplet remained.

Just as time nearly stood still and without any warning there is movement from the ‘leaver’. Was it a paw, a flannel, a finger or a cloth?

No. The ‘leaver’ has finally cracked.  In what seems like slow motion the ‘leaver’ shook his head. Just like a dog would shake himself dry after a swim in the sea. The droplet had completed its course and went flying across the train. The ‘leaver’ then regained his calm again, and more droplet started to form on his head once more.

Maybe this guy is not a ‘leaver’ after all. Maybe he falls into a fourth category. Maybe he is a ………………………………………………

 

Shaker!