Sunday 5th December 2010

Nuts for breakfast... protein and carbs for energy in the heat!

After catching up on at least a couple of hours sleep we made plans to find transportation to Kolam. Once in Kolam we were to meet up with Dan, avolunteer from the school, who would then take us to where we were going to be staying. We wrote the name of our destination on a piece of paper as it sounded if we were asking for Kovalam. I thought it must be our Yorkshire accents that were confusing people but even when we thought we had changed them to accommodate a more harsh Indian-English accent we were still confusing people. I was probably sounding more like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins!!

We walked through Trivandrum and bought a litre bottle of water from a vendor, then went to the railway station to see which train we could catch. Unfortunately, you need to book a train at least twenty four hours before departure to make sure you get a seat so we headed out towards the bus station. "Taxi? Rickshaw? Kovolam Beach?".  We were asked several times by hopeful drivers and speculative opportunists hoping to make a commission. I asked one of them where the bus station station was and he cheerfully directed us  to the right place.

There are bus stations and there are Indian bus stations. People wander about carrying all manor of items from religious garments on their heads to chickens and bags of food and clothing! The station has a uniformed guard that stands outside the entrance waving buses in and out and stopping people from being run over without his guidance. The market we passed through to enter the station has a mixture of cooking smells and spices mixed with more than its fair share of odour de raw sewerage, but strangely, it all seems to go together! The ground is littered with excrement and litter and dodging amonia stenched puddles becomes a bit of a game- thank god we brought our boots!

After asking several people which bus we should catch and showing them our piece of paper we were finally guided towards the right bus.

We managed to get seats and put our heavy backpacks on our knees. As the bus swayed and rocked through the craziest of traffic, the warm dusty breeze blew across our faces through the windows, well, holes in the walls of the bus. They don't have windows! Beep, beep, beep, rev, break swerve, accelerate all in the space of twenty seconds. The roads here are dangerous with everyone wanting to overtake everyone else. The over-laden bus swayed swayed its occupants too and fro as it careared along. We passed through many towns. Some of them had large houses with high walls and others had make-shift slums lined up the edges of the roadside. Piles of rubbish heaped to the doorways ready for its occupants to sift though and recycle. So much time is spent making a dwelling colourful and so little time keeping it clean, it seems.

Every now and then when the bus stopped I showed the piece of paper to whoever was closest to us to ask if we were anywhere near Kollam- Headshakes, head wobbles and '"No" where our answers.

As I have said before, the culture here, when it comes to queues (standing in line for the Americans reading this!) is 'every one for themselves', even on the bus! The hotelier told us that the journey would take about one hour but having people in the aisle sit on my shoulder or push their bum in face for nearly three hours I began to suspect that the hotel man had never caught a bus to Kollam, EVER!

Battered, numb knee'd and over-heated we arrived at Kollam.

Straight off the bus and the ususal suspects were at us, "Taxi? Rickshaw? Hotel?" We just smiled and said no thanks and walked passed them and towards a food and water stall inside the station. For our lunch we had Bananas, Samosa and a pudding of fried banana coated in either chick pea or corn meal.

Fed and watered we walked into Kollam town to a shopping centre. This place looks like it shouldn't really be here and that it was some mad western idea to throw it in  the middle of this bustling Indian town. The mall is full of internet cafes and phone shops and we decided to read our emails to see if Dan had left us any clue as to where we would be meeting him. No luck. Not one message.Only 10 Rupees for half an hour- cheap!

Our next thought was to buy a local mobile phone so we could at least contact him, so into the nearest shop we go. After trying to communicate with the shop keeper he decides to get another shopkeeper to come and help with our translation. In India you can't buy a phone without a copy of your passport- no problem, we have brought copies for just an emergency.

"Great, can we have one please, for about 1200 rupees?", emergency over!


We all look at each other. Me and Diane, the shop keeeper, the interpreter and now a customer, all looking backwards and forwards at each other. I hate awkward silence and even more so in another language!

"You need a passport sized photos as well" The interpreter announces.


" And you won't get one today, it's Sunday. Shop is closed"

Double blow!!

So, what did we do?

"We will come back later" Diane says and off we toddle, feeling like we had been kicked swiftly in the naughties!

Descision time- Catch a taxi, rickshaw or bus, train maybe? What are our other options? We could get a room for the night and get the photos  done tomorrow, then buy a phone and get in touch with Dan to pick us up.

After sitting in the hot sun and humidity on the steps of the mall for all of two minutes we decide to approach a rickshaw driver, parked up at the entrance.

"Can you take us here?", asked Diane, pointing at an address on another piece of paper. The driver said yes, we loaded up and off we go.

During our white knuckle adventure we pass a political rally. It looks like the most organised line of people we had come across so far. As we can't understand the local language- Malayalam, we don't understand the banners the participants are holding,I could only guess that the thousands of people we pass are showing their support for a local politician.

The best way to travel here is auto rickshaw. It is scary, slightly uncomfortable, but gives you a true experience of road life. The drivers are quite relentless and take chances with the on coming traffic- very aggressive driving!

Along the way, the driver stopped to ask several people for directions. Ok, so maybe he doesn't know where we are going, but the journey is quite thrilling!

As we head off the main road (if there is such a thing here?) I lose my bearings and from what started out as a rickshaw adventure slowy turns my thoughts to "Where are we?". The villages become more sparse, the driver begins to ask for more directions and seems a little more agitated as the sun heads quickly southward!

Another thought flashes..."Nobody knows where we are or where we are gong!". Very constructive, I'll keep these thoughts to myself. 

We meander on the rough dirt roads out into the dense tropical forrests of banana trees and palms. The humidity seems to have taken a break and I'm not quite sure if it is because we are very slowly climbing or if its because the sun is setting. Either way, it is welcomed.

Yet again the driver stops to ask directions, . This time it's a family. The woman waves up the road telling the driver where he sould be going, but as to not take any more chances of getting lost he asks a young boy to share the driver seat to direct us to our destination- excellent!

Eventually after many twists and turns through the jungle we pull up outside very large steel gates... padlocked.

The driver and the young boy jump out at the front the boy says "Here". The driver tells us "Here", we both look at each other Diane quickly asks the driver to ring the phone number on the piece of paper. The driver looks a little hesitant, until Diane says she will pay more and I look around at the woman holiding three leads, walking three very large, slow moving cows passing the opposite side of the rickshaw. All that goes through my head is " I wonder if she can give us a place to sleep for the night?" The jet lag has hold of me.

Between Diane and the driver they make contact with someone that says they will come to the gates to meet us. Meanwhile, I have constructed a whole conversation in sign language asking for a place to stay, with the woman walking the cattle!

Within minutes, two girls walk towrards us and unlock the iron gates. The driver jumps back into the rickshaw and drives through the school grounds. We stop at the end of the track in front of a basket ball court and a very large multi windowed building. Diane gives the driver an extra 100 Rupees for getting us to our destination and everyone seems happy.

As we walk across the basket ball court we are greeted by a group of children coming out of the building.

"What is your name?" several of them ask, smiling and inquisitive. "Where are you from?", "How old are you?" So many questions. We are led into a large dining area with plastic seats and tables.

"Have you had lunch?", one of the girls asks. Her English is perfect and well rehersed. We sit down as she prepares food in the kitchen.

We ask where Dan and the School Manager, Joseph are and told that they have taken several of the children into Kundara to have their hair cut. There has been no mention of our arrival or the possibility of meeting us in Kollam. Dinner arrives. Rice, papadums, and a spicy sauce with a bit what looks like meat- who knows? And a glass of pre-boiled water.

The children tell us that they are on their own in the hostel and that the cook as gone home without letting anyone know. It happens regularly, by all accounts! They are very chatty and happy as we talk about where we come from.

Halfway through the meal Dan and Joseph arrive, along wth a couple of boys with shaved heads.  Dan is in his early twenties, on a gap year from university in the UK and has worked at the hostel for about two months.Joseph looks to be in his late fifties, glasses and slightly balding. The truth is, he is in his seventies! They joked about how short the kids had their hair cut and that the Principal would not be happy. The chatty, happy children seem to be more sombre on their arrival and stop asking as many questions and are told to go and study.

Study, on a Sunday?

Joseph sat with us and spoke quietly about what he wanted us to do during our stay. As we talked, I couldn't take my eyes away from the lizzards running across the wall behind him. We discussed the possibility of teaching and revamping the school websites. He told us that he wanted us to go into his classrooms and show his teachers how to teach because he does not feel confident about the staff he has employed. Joseph also hinted that the cook had left and spent nearly three hours going round the houses asking if Diane could cook dinner. So, the most immediate job was to make dinner for the hostel kids. We prepared dinner for thirty. When I say we, I really mean Diane. I cut the onions.

We ate a delicious beef curry! After dinner Diane made sure that Joseph understood that cooking for so many people was a one off and that he had to get someone to come and do it full time- he reluctantly agreed.

Dan showed us which room was going to be ours. When you first start looking for volunteer projects, ask for photos! Being told that a place has the options of single or double rooms conjours pictures of errrm.... just that! What it doesn't prepare you for is a concrete room with two solid  beds with a half inch mattress. Neither does it prepare you for the wildlfe residing there!

I drop the backpacks off and go in search of Joseph. I ask him if he has a broom that can get rid of the large cobwebs with and he laughs at my request.

" What will eat the mosquitoes and insects?", he asks and passes me a small dust pan and a bunch of reeds held together with twine at one end.

So, we have have spiders, lizzards, mosquitoes, large flying insects, beatles, cockroaches, ants and flies. Our very own eco sytem, all thriving in our 3m x 4m concrete room, with nothing more than bars at the window to keep out the larger animals- whatever they may be???!

Home Sweet Home!


"I'll have ....errrr....bananas!"


The buses here definitely lack comfort...and windows....and doors.... 


 Street vendor at the market near the bus station selling pan roasted chickpeas and peanuts. Behind her is an untreated open sewer drain that runs through the length of the city. The heat of the daytime sun makes the odour near unbearable.




The main road through Kollam from the seat of a demon driven rickshaw- the best way to travel in India 


The impressive locked gates to the school 


 The rather more impressive St Joseph International Academy


 The Hostel within the grounds of the school where thirty or so children stay.


Our room. All tooled up and ready for the most creepiest of critters! 


Sound advice!