My last week in India – I can’t believe the time has gone so fast. Made an emotional farewell to everyone at Sharana on Friday afternoon. Felt sad to go and and still feel there was so much I could do, I just didn’t feel ready to leave yet. We all took lots of photos and promised to keep in touch so hopefully I’ll still be able to help now and again (whether it be advice or fundraising), albeit from the UK!
Flew to Trivandrum on the Southern tip of India in the afternoon. It was dark by the time I reached there so just took a taxi to my guesthouse and crashed out for the night. The next morning I was finally able to take in the beauty of my surroundings – a pretty wooden house with palm trees and hammocks in the garden leading out onto a white sandy beach. The best thing was that there was no one around apart from a few fishermen, who took little notice of me sunbathing or swimming in the sea. Ended up having a wonderfully relaxing afternoon, lazing around on the beach and watching the fishermen bring in the nets. Even saw dolphins swimming past! The guesthouse owners made me delicious fresh tiger prawns with noodles for dinner, al fresco. Bliss!
The next day I awoke early to catch the train to Kollam. As the taxi reached the station disaster struck as I realised the hotel still had my passport! One of the hotel staff drove over to meet us en route with my passport as we headed to the next station to catch the train, but when we arrived it was shut! Headed back into town to get another train, but it wasn’t for another 2 hours. Gave up and finally took the public bus. Not too bad a drive – just a couple of hours – and then a short autorickshaw ride to the hotel in the centre of town. Booked into a backwater trip in the afternoon, which turned out to be an absolutely stunning trip – lazily drifting in a canoe through luscious greenery and sleepy villages. My guide was great at pointing out banana trees, cashew trees, pineapple plants, and even an eagle and a kingfisher along the way. We also stopped off a couple of times, once to see coconut husks being wound into string and once for a cup of masala chai in a little village hut/café!
Monday morning I set of for Cochin. Unfortunately didn’t anticipate the crowd of people queuing for tickets at Kollam Junction station. Everyone waited patiently for 15minutes, then as the train arrived the crowd surged forward, transforming into a heaving mass of bodies against the ticket counter – waving rupees, prodding with elbows, and grabbing desperately for the ticketseller’s attention. I somehow pushed through and got one, then raced over the bridge and down the platform with my huge bag, sweating profusely, to make it to the train. However just as I was about to board the conductor wouldn’t let me on – I had the wrong ticket!! In the confusion the girl must have sold me one going in the opposite direction. Begged for 5 minutes then finally burst into tears… to no avail. Back to the office, exchanged my ticket for a new one and waited 30mins for the next train. As if things couldn’t get any worse, an hour into the journey the tour operator phoned to say the hotel had cancelled my reservation as they had overbooked, even though I’d paid a week in advance. Rage!! They offered me an alternative but it was on the mainland, 20k from my original location – so I (im)politely declined and demanded a refund.
At Cochin, got an auto rickshaw to the first hotel in the Lonely Planet, which was massively overpriced (with no hot water or wifi)… and three other venues later I finally found a lovely home stay in the fort area, a short walk from the Chinese fishing nets. The owner, Coral, was very kind and friendly and could have passed as my Mum’s sister with her Anglo-Indian background! Her little grandneice was dancing around the kitchen to Christmas songs – “Of course she loves dancing she’s Anglo-Indian too!” Coral said… Mum, Paula et al I’m sure you agree! Was so thankful to have a hot shower and collapse into the huge soft bed. Spent the evening walking along the promenade, watching the sunset over the Chinese fishing nets and had dinner in a stylish hotel nearby listening to a traditional Indian band. The next day lazily looked round the old fort city, including the parade ground and St Francis’ Church, with a traditional banana leaf fish supper in a local restaurant in the evening (yum!).
Next morning I flew to Mumbai for my last three days in India. Spent most of the time relaxing in the hotel (exhausted by now!) and doing some Christmas shopping. On my last day however I decided to visit Elephanta Island. I ventured down to the Victoria Terminus (Central Train Station) which was an adventure in itself on the public train system! I expected it to be like Delhi’s sleek tube system, but it couldn’t have been more different – almost impossible to figure out which train goes where (I initially went 5 stops on the wrong line…), rusty and dirty old metal carriages, and even in first class people were packed in and hanging out of the side doors. I was shocked to see that every time a train stopped at a signal a crowd of people would climb up or down and from the tracks!
Once at the terminus I took a cab to the Gateway of India and then an hour long public ferry to Elephanta Island. The island itself was a lush green forest, with a tiny toy train leading to a long row of steps up to the seven temple caves carved out of rock. Quite breathtaking, with huge reliefs of Shiva and colossal figures of dvarapala (guardians whose task was to admit the faithful and keep out ill-intentioned visitors) flanking the doorways. Only low point was when one of the many monkeys scampering around the temples ran up to me and cheekily grabbed my sprite out my hand! Watched the sunset over Mumbai from the boat on the way back then had a delicious dinner and a few cosmopolitan cocktails on the top of the Intercontinental hotel on Marine Drive to celebrate my last night. Luckily made my flight and arrived back in the UK just in time for Christmas!
I’ve fallen in love with India during my time here, but it’s with a mix of affection and exasperation. A rising international power with a rapidly growing economy (exceeded only by China), India is also plagued by poverty and unemployment – of its 1.2bn population 750 million still live in underdeveloped rural villages and 35% of the country is illiterate. The paradox is everywhere. I’ve seen sleek offices in Mumbai, Delhi’s impressive tube network, TVs with over 150 channels, autorickshaw drivers with mobiles, glamorous posters in the street of the latest Bollywood films, and met intelligent and inquisitive girls studying at one of the prestigious engineering schools. Yet in contrast I’ve also seen families sleeping in a row in shop doorways, the sprawling city slums, men desperately picking through litter-lined streets, children pressed against car windows begging for food, and rural poverty in the villages, which have broken my heart.
Most of the growth results from the services industry (particularly ICT) and the well educated middle classes. This widening of inequality between the middle classes and the rural poor is partly down to a lack of agricultural reform and reluctance to modernise the villages, exacerbated by government corruption, the Indian culture of complacency and deference, and problems arising from the traditional caste system.
However, no matter how frustrated I’ve been at times here, it melts away when I see one of the huge grins and ubiquitous head waggles. I’ve had a fantastic three months and seen some amazing sights, but most of all their hope, generosity, kindness, and perseverance has been humbling. Economic growth isn’t everything – a country needs to also concentrate on the kind of society it is creating. India has terrific potential and it is striking country, mixing old traditions with modern Western influences, but it needs to find a solution to its lopsided economy and improve conditions for those at the bottom of the social pyramid. I hope microfinance will be just one tool in the future to enable this.