(=Hello!, in Tamil)
Has been quite a struggle to find time to update my blog, but have finally managed to locate a computer with internet access in the home of Ford Trust coordinator Paul (who is lovely beyond all superlatives)!
Having suffered always from travel sickness I was mildly surprised to find that I felt no nausea at all during the three days of continuous traveling to our end destination - the village of Pillayarpatti, situated about 80km from Madurai. Personal recommendation - if ever flying to India, fly with Jet Airways! Had planned to evade the aforementioned potential face-to-face encounter with the toilet basin/a brown paper bag by sleeping throughout the entire journey. Little did I know that Jet economy class seats came fully equipped with Coldplay's Viva La Vida (album), plus other less choicier and/or Bollywood albums, Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, seat-to-seat instant messaging, Snake, Tetris, and so much more. Sadly this initial rush of excitement didn't last for too long and so naturally, I spent the enite journey sleeping.
Arrival at Mumbai was smooth enough, with a fairly easy walk through immigration. From horror stories told by over-cautious parents I'd been expecting a crowd of uncouth, burly, heavily moustached indian security guards, who would snap my passport out of my hands and give me the interrogation of a lifetime. Instead, I was greeted by a pretty, young indian woman who spoke in barely audible whispers (this, coming from me!).
One internal flight later, the group (8 of us in all) had arrived safely in Chennai, and were carted off in white taxis to our hotel for the night. In the weeks prior to coming to India I had been milling over the extremes of poverty that I would inevitably be exposed to in India, but I hadn't expected to be confronted by it so soon into the trip. Just as we were climbing into the taxis at Chennai airport a cripple with a missing foot, emaciated limbs and a crooked stance hobbled up to the vehicle and gestured that he wanted food, or perhaps money. My insides hardened, as I'd been told to do countless times, and I ignored the beggars pleas. As the taxi began to move I glanced back out of the window and met eyes with the cripple for a fleeting moment. It was more painful than any scenario I'd breen pre-playing in my head. Later, en route to the hotel, I tried to empathise with the cripple. How must it have been felt to be so callously ignored by a Westerner? Were they used to it, or did each encounter render them more broken and dejected? Or was he an alcoholic or a drug abuser, a wife beater or a crook? I could think of no answers, only questions.
The hotel itself, Hotel Chandra Gardens opposite Chennai Egmore train station, was stunning, even if stepping outdoors was akin to stepping into a sauna or steam room. And of course (sadly) humidity does not bode well for hair/general presentableness. That evening we feasted on an authentic south indian meal comprising of various curries and sundries, and I was completely astounded (shellshocked is probably more accurate) when the bill for the 8 of us came to just 20 pounds!! So not even 3 quid each!!
Following an early start the next morning we arrived at Chennai Egmore station at 7.15 to board our train to Tiruchirupali, which again after the many horror stories I'd been told was actually very easy to board. To guide us Janak (a member of the volunteer group) had brought along his friend who lived and worked in Chennai. On the train he spoke to us (in very good English) about his work and his life. He told us about how he had worked in an indian bank since completing his education, in the investment banking dept (not sure of his exact working title - in spite of going to LSE I know next to nothing about economics). His wage was high by indian standards, but still marginal when compared to the bonuses received by his European/American counterparts! Then he revealed that he had in fact been offered a job by Goldman Sachs in America - a job that would make him rich beyond his dreams. What was amazing was that he had refused the offer because he didn't like Western culture, preferring to remain in India! I have to confess that I'm pretty money-hungry, so in a sense what this man was saying was quite a culture shock. Later he spoke fervently about the time he met and shook hands with the Argentinian football player Maradona, although I missed most of the story because I'd fallen asleep/have no interest in football whatsoever/who is Maradona?
Once the train arrived in Tiruchirupali it was a scramble to get us all off before the doors slammed shut. There we were met by Paul Rasan (Ford Trust coordinator), his colleague David (who has since become one of my best friends), and another friend who ran his own NGO from a neighbouring district. The group immediately took to Paul and David and vice versa. Paul and co had hired a bright green minibus with patterns to ferry us around during our stay, which still reminds me of the scooby doo van (but with windows) every time I see it. As we made the final bus journey to the village of Pillayarpatti, where we would be lodged for the next two weeks, I realised that this was where the real journey would begin.
And what a journey's it been! It's around 7.30 on Saturday morning as I type this so I'm a little behind schedule on updating the blog, but will get round to it soon. I will say though that I've had the most phenomenal time so far, and met so many new people who I hope I'll meet again in future, some maybe in different, more improved circumstances. In the past few days I've also had to overcome some issues of my own, like my crippling fear of spiders(!!) and the limitations posed by language barriers. More on that later though - right now I can smell Idli for breakfast...