Author Archives: John47

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!

 

Another day and not another dollar.

 

Marie is taking the class in the afternoon, I am now just supporting a few children today. A boy sat next to me, I am privileged as I have a chair; he sits crossed legged on the floor. Marie started the lesson, the boy reached into his brown school bag, which the state school provides. He shuffled around inside and pulled out a tin cuboid shaped pencil case. He opened it and it was completely empty. He just stared at it hoping for something to appear. I watched him. He didn’t realise I was looking at him and he didn’t move. It brought a tear to my eye.

I think back to the UK, I think of all the classes I have taught over the years. I think of all the pencils and pens that have passed through my hands. I think of all the arguments that I have witnessed and stopped over children’s pens and pencils. Children arguing over whose pencil they are using, or one child will only lend her pencils to her closest friends. Whereas this boy simply had nothing. I bring Marie’s attention to the fact that this boy has no pencil or pen or anything to write with. She was obviously used to this situation and just raised her hand and said one sentence in Hindi, very quickly as to say help, and then just got on with her lesson. A girl sitting right over the other side of the classroom, got up off the floor and handed the boy a pencil and then went and sat back down, so fast the lesson was not disturbed. The boy nodded and thanked her, she smiled.

I have decided to leave the lesson early, rather than staying to the end. When I get up to leave it’s a real big deal. I have to make sure Marie has finished her instructions and the children are working independently, this way it causes less disruption. All the children shake my hand as I leave the classroom. I am sure most of them would follow me home if I asked them.

I got the rickshaw back to the railway station. As I left the compound, I saw about five men sitting on the ground, amongst all sorts of rubbish and litter. This wouldn’t be that unusual except they are sitting around a green baize that is placed on the floor, and they are all engaged in a game of cards. Poker, I wonder, it was only 4.00pm. I would have liked to taken more interest and stopped, but I just waved as the rickshaw passed, they waved back.

I got to the railway station and jumped on whilst the train was still moving and, as always, it was totally packed. Like a local, I embarked the train as it was still moving. I found myself in the goods and disabled carriage, but no one was too bothered. There were no seats, and the goods that people are carrying usually come in the form of food. Being in an enclosed space, the smells are intensified. It is usually the smell of dried fish that gets to me. I looked on the floor and there was a young boy holding a silver drum. Three other youths were daggling out of the train and were playing dare with their feet scraping the platform floor. They left their feet hanging, just narrowly avoiding poles that support the platform roof, missing them by centimetres. One youth went one step further and climbed onto the roof of the moving train.  This manoeuvre is totally illegal and he knew and enjoyed that fact. I just think another day on another train in Mumbai, and really didn’t give it much more thought. However I always make sure I am nowhere near the open doors of the train, whether it’s moving or not.

 

I returned to the hotel and wrote my diary. Today I have written nearly 14 pages. I have decided to take a note book with me to the slum, and record everything into this first. My diary is becoming very valuable and important to me, I can’t risk losing it. I think of Bob Monkhouse and how his diary was stolen and how that affected him. But with me, it gives me another chance to edit the words I had written during the day.

The family returned from school, the solitude and the peace was broken. Back to being a dad and husband again. I helped with the boy’s homework.  Later Michelle worked on the computer, school work and the wonders of being a primary Headteacher of an International school. We talked later about the problems she was facing in her school.

 

I think of how our days of teaching, even though are in the same city, could not be any more different.  Despite doing the same job, we are mile apart.

Colin

Day dreaming as I often do at lunch times. After teaching, it is time to sit down with the rest of the teachers, listen to them talking in Hindi and for me just to sit and reflect.

I was disturbed by something hitting against my trouser leg. I jumped up! It must be a rat, I thought! I have been thinking about them ever since I discovered they lived behind the cupboard in the corner of the classroom. The thing moved and to be honest, I was a bit scared to look down to see what it was banging against my leg. I looked and thank god, it was not a rat, it was a bird.

I say it was a bird, but it was difficult to tell; it looked almost like a small dinosaur. White in colour, if you could see through the dirt, so it was greyish white. It’s a chicken, I thought. On closer inspection, it had a red spot on its forehead, a bindi, how ironic I thought as I studied it closer. I stood up and it followed me out into the balcony and along the corridor outside the classroom. It was not bothered by me in the slightest, it was tame. I needed to take a photo. Done.

 

 

It hovered around and I noticed a washing basket on the ground that I had not noticed before; that must be its home. There was also a bowl of water for it.

Marie returned from her lunch and I asked “the chicken; how long has that been here?”

‘Not long, it’s Neva’s’

‘Yes, it is mine’ she replied.  ‘I bought from the market.’

‘Will you eat it?’ I asked.

‘No, it’s a pet’

‘How old is it?’, I asked.

Holding three fingers up, Marie translated it was three months old.

‘For eggs?’ I enquired.

‘No’, Neva replied.

‘Why not?’

‘Because it is a boy.’

We all laughed, I was thinking how can the cleaner, who lives next door, own a chicken as a pet, let it run in and out of the classroom while the children are learning, and think that is normal. Again I stop myself, it’s me who is not the normal one.

At this point, the chicken set off up the corridor, and perhaps it sensed freedom. Neva followed, crouching over with two arms in front of her, trying to catch it. She was leaning over so much she was nearly falling. I stood watching, with my mouth wide open. ‘Where was it going?’, ‘how could I help?’ were two questions that ran through my mind?  It’s a chicken, it doesn’t really know where it is going.  It probably didn’t fancy another night’s sleep in a washing bowl.

 

Neva was still chasing the chicken along the corridor when the children started to arrive for their lesson and they just looked, as if the whole situation is perfectly normal. But to me it certainly was not.

I think of the scene in Rocky.

‘When you can catch that chicken, you are grease lightning, you are ready Rock.’

Neva doesn’t look too much like Mick from Rocky, but it does make me laugh.

‘Why are you so worried about the chicken running away?’ I asked.

‘The dog might eat it,’ Neva replied.  ‘It’s my pet, do you like him?’

I still am having trouble trying to come with terms with what is going on. And I am trying to teach when all this is happening. And still I am wondering, why would you get a male chicken that you can’t eat and doesn’t give you eggs?

She finally grabbed the poor chicken and the angry dog in the corridor goes hungry. She pinned backs it wings and cupped it with both hands. She then pushed it in my direction. I got it, she wanted me to hold it, she wanted to share her pet. This was my chance, come on Rocky, grab the chicken then you are ready!

It was just a chicken, how difficult could this be, just hold it. The children passed me and entered the classroom, I am opening and closing my hands, thinking I not sure I really want to hold this thing. She pushed further towards me, the children just passed and smiled. I am teacher not a farmer, I have held a chicken before, and that didn’t feel comfortable, and it didn’t look like this one. The last child entered the classroom, this was my time to escape, no child paid any attention to me or the chicken and why should they?

I indicated to Neva that I must go and teach. She smiled, knowing I am not quite ready to hold the chicken yet. I leant forward and give the chicken a pathetic pat on its bindi  with my fore finger. That was all I was capable of at that time. I sighed.

I entered the classroom, Neva followed me in. Oh no, this situation wasn’t finished.  I asked Marie again before the lesson started to just confirm that this chicken was a pet, was a male chicken and would not be eaten? She answered yes to all of the question.

‘So if it is a pet,’ I asked ‘why doesn’t it have a name?’

Marie and Neva just say it hasn’t.

‘Well, it has now,’ I say.

‘If you won’t name your pet, I will.’

‘We shall call him Colin.’

Ok, they agreed and we all laughed. Neva took Colin out of the classroom and put him into the basket, and I then started teaching a lesson on verbs, like nothing unusual had happened.

If you are reading this and your name is Colin, like my wife’s father, I did not name the chicken with you in mind. It just seemed that this name suited our class pet.

A few weeks later, as the chicken matured, Neva approached me and told me that the chicken was speaking to her, every morning, very early: ‘cock a doodle doo’.  More reason not to have a bought a male chicken from the market, I thought to myself.

 

Later on, I conquered my fears. Here I am holding Colin!

Noise

I am early, I must have conquered the commute into the slum. I find myself waiting outside the classroom on the first floor of this tower block. I am lucky; the guard dog is asleep so I pass without any worries that he will bite me. When I have been early on previous occasions, I have taken the time to explore the compound and be blown away by all the different things I saw, things that I wouldn’t see almost anywhere else. However there was really no need to walk and explore. From the first floor of this tower block, I was still able to view things I have never seen before.

 

The view from the balcony outside the classroom

I look down to the ground. There is no real pavement and no real road, just pathways covered with all sorts of rubbish. One thing that I have started to notice is there are always loose playing cards abandoned. When walking up to the classroom today, I noticed a King of Spades, and bit further on, a Queen of Diamonds and just before I entered the building, a Jack of Clubs. For any brag players reading, I would have had a ‘coffee shop’. From the balcony near to where I saw the Queen of Diamonds, there are some chickens walking around, eating whatever they can find amongst the rubbish. Next to them are crows.  These are great survivors and I have never seen them in such numbers. They will risk anything for a quick meal, and are experts at finding the least bit of food amongst the human rubbish.  One was eating an empty egg shell that had just been thrown over the balcony only seconds before.

 

Looking further up the pathway, there is a cow, laying on the floor. She is taking it easy, maybe knowing she is sacred and life must be easier. Next to her are two adult goats and their three kids; these too are looking for anything to eat amongst the rubbish. Further inspection shows a rat, but he doesn’t stay around for long and soon disappears under the ground.

 

Above all the animals on the ground, I look at the tower block opposite where I am standing. I see a boy, I would guess he was about six. He sees me looking at him. I smile, the international language that always works, he smiles back. He was dragging a toy elephant along the ledge of the balcony, holding it by its trunk. He was playing a game, he was almost letting go of the trunk and catching just before it was going to fall. Two rooms to the right of him was a girl, I would guess she was about 10, she was just brushing her hair, and then flicking her head to one side and then brushing again in the same repeating motion. Neither of them were known to me and neither attended my school.

Standing there, looking at all this activity from the balcony next to my classroom, I wondered why I ever needed to walk around the slum, all life was already here. All these animals living so closely together, like a scene from Animal Farm, (without the horses or the pigs). Or am I just listing the months on a Chinese Calendar. Amazing to watch. I have also seen monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs and horses. There would be no need to set up a zoo anywhere near here.

The children and Marie turn up, and just wonder why I am so interested in looking over the balcony. I stop my observations and enter the classroom, keen and ready to teach more English to these children.

During the lesson I hear the Muslim call for prayer, it is loud and it makes me look out of the classroom window. But the children don’t notice it at all and all continue to work undisturbed. It made me think about noise and what I have experienced during my years of teaching. I suppose some noises you get used to, you just sort of don’t hear them and these do not disturb your concentration. I suppose rain drops hitting the classroom window back at home would be a close comparison. Or, when you live next to a railway line, after a while you don’t hear the trains going past. But when something different happens, your concentration can be disturbed.  Back in the UK, for example I always remember fighting for the children’s concentration when the ride on lawn mower turned up and cut the field.

But here in India, teaching in this slum, the amount of different noises I have heard while I have been teaching are beyond anything I will ever experience again. But what has amazed me, and continue to amaze me, is the children. Whatever happens outside and inside the classroom, they are not concerned; they are here to concentrate and learn. They will not be put off by a few outside distractions. But to me these distractions are huge. In no particular order, I will explain the noises these children hear and I hope you will agree with me, it’s amazing they can still concentrate.

 

Animals

Firstly animal noises, but to be fair, I am almost starting to get used to them. But every now and then, the noise does stop me from my concentrating. The most consistent being the crows. They are everywhere on the balcony and looking through the classroom windows, ‘crowing all day’.

 

Then the chickens, including the one that lives next door to the school room, seeming to have forgotten the time to cock-a-doodle-do, and does it all day, not just at sun rise. With the goats ‘bleating’ and the cows ‘mooing’, at times it feels like I am teaching on a farm! Lastly, the scurrying of the rats in the corner of the classroom. Amidst all these animal noises, the children remain on task.

Music

The musical festivals: there are so many festivals celebrated here in Mumbai, that I couldn’t start to remember all the names. Since I have been teaching there has been at least 4. All the streets are decorated in a range of wonderful, bright colours; the same happens here on the compound, but even more so. The music stands are set up with loud speakers placed all around the compound, ready for the night’s celebrations. But like any festival, there must be practise, and these practises happen during the day. On many occasion, the festival’s loud speakers are being used, and the music is so deafening you can’t hear yourself think, let alone be heard. Hindi music being blasted into your classroom for hours at a time is hard to ignore.

The other day there was a wedding and the music continued to be played nearly all day, again being blasted into the classroom. But the children remain on task.

 

 

 

 

Protests and Politics

A week doesn’t pass without a march, protest or a political party campaign. This creates more noise. There will be a vehicle of some sort, sometimes an ox (another animal I forgot to mention), pulling a trailer, with people shouting into a microphone, expressing their point of view. Again loud speaker noise directly being blasted into your classroom is a common occurrence. Just the other day, one guy set up his stand protesting for nearly two hours with a loud microphone directly outside the classroom. Still the children remain on task.

 

 

 

Traffic and Motor Bikes

Even though the classroom is 20 meters from the road, the consistence traffic noise is something that takes a good while to get used to. The main reason being the consistence use of the horn, which I am still trying to work out the code to how honking it consistently helps your driving.

Cars often back fire and it sounds like you are under attack in a John Wayne film set. The worst example was the starting up of a motor bike just below us on the first floor. After about 10 back fires and the annoying kick start sound repeating itself so many times, I was wondering when the person would just call it a day, and catch a rickshaw. But no, whoever they were they were persistent and the noise continues for about 30 minutes. Finally, when I was teaching a great lesson on pronouns, I was aware the bike had started I could hear the engine purring. Well, that would be putting politely, it was more like putting along. This was then followed by a cloud of smoke that floated into the classroom.  Some children covered their noses, but continued to listen. I followed their lead and was determine not to be put off by a bit of noise and smoke, so I continued, so did the smoke! The smoke had got so bad, it wasn’t the smell that was the problem, it was our vision!

I could hardly see the children sitting on the floor, and I am sure they couldn’t see the board. I was just about to jump ship and move the children out of the classroom, and there was another massive back fire, but this time more like an explosion. The smoke disappeared, I decide it would be safe to just look to see what had happened, and as they say, there is no smoke without fire. The smoke was disappearing because the motor bike was completely on fire and the petrol in the tank was burning nicely. I returned to the classroom. The children had since uncovered their noses because the smoke had gone. There they were, still sitting in their same places and ready to continue their learning. You’ve guessed it, the children remain on task.

The drill

I did briefly mention in my last blog, (Rats) that there was a new window fitted into the classroom. However I didn’t say how and what noise it produced. Marie had been asking for the window next to the toilet to be properly sealed to stop the rats entering the classroom. It had taken about 7 month for this to happen. It seemed after looking at the window, it just needed a new metal grate to replace the old one, which the rats had forced open entering and exiting the classroom. The lesson had already started in the morning and Marie was teaching whilst I was helping a group of about seven children learning some common words.

A workman entered the classroom, all tooled up, with a hammer, drill and a screwdriver. He spoke in Hindi and Marie pointed him to the window. I thought, he would just measure the window and the metal grate and come back when the children were not present. How wrong was I? First he started with a screwdriver and hammer to remove the old metal plate from the window, then the new one would be fitted. The hammer was going six to the dozen, and he was getting really frustrated that he couldn’t remove the plate.  The noise of the hammer and scraping of the screwdriver were getting again to level where I couldn’t hear what Marie was saying, the children just continued to look forward and not once at the activity of workman that was taking place at the back of the classroom.

At last the metal plate was removed. I did look over to see one boy sitting near to where the workman was working. I thought I better keep an eye on that situation. I thought now that he had removed the plate, he will remove himself from the classroom, and we can get back to being able to hear what the teacher was saying. I thought he would just go out of the classroom, use the old metal plate as a template and later fit the new one in. No, I was wrong again.

He delved into his bag of tools and removed a new metal plate and set up his drill. (You can see what I was looking at instead of teaching!). The drill was inserted into the nearest electric plug socket, wires only, no plug. The wires stretched over the boy’s head whilst he was still concentrating on the lesson. The workman then started to drill. I couldn’t believe it. Could you imagine teaching with that going on in a UK classroom? The noise was unbearable, this time not coming from outside, but from within the classroom. His frustration continued and the metal plate he had was too large for the hole of the window. Oh well, time to stop, and get another plate. Wrong again, he went back into his bag and produced what looked like a tile cutter. He removed the drill bit, and replaced it with a cutting gadget. Still the children looked towards Marie and the lesson continued.  The workman continued with his business. No problem, he was thinking, if the plate is too large, I will just cut it into size.

It almost seemed to be like a sketch from Candid Camera, or the Two Ronnies. I was almost expecting Jeremy Beadle to pop his head out of the cupboard in rat corner and say ‘You’ve been framed’. The workmen began cutting the metal plate to size, the noise increased. The boy still sat, there trying to concentrate on the lesson, then sparks started to fly. I could take this no longer. I got up walked over to the workman, who just nodded his head and continued to work. I am, after all a teacher and I must look after the well-being of all the students in my care. The sparks were now hitting the boy on the head and landing on his book. I looked at Marie.  She stopped talking and was looking at me, wondering what I was going to do. She was almost looking at me as if I was the reason for this lesson coming to stop. I looked at the workman, nodded back and ask the boy to come with me, out of the line of fire from the sparks. It wasn’t my job to stop the lesson. The cutting, drilling and spark flying continued for another 30 minutes. And all the children, including the boy I had moved into safety, remained totally on task.

The distractions and noise these children put up with on a daily basis is amazing. Thank you children, again I am the one learning from being in your school.

So the next time the lawn mower distracts children from learning in my UK classroom, I will just smile.

 

Der’s a Rat in de classroom, what am I gonna do?

 

Another day teaching on the compound. Today I arrive early, so take the chance of walking around the whole area, and discover places within the compound that I have not yet visited. I am amazed by the amount of litter and filth.

 

 

I never ever wanted to show how poor and dirty people live, that was never my intention. Putting on a hat of superiority, saying ‘look at that”. How lucky are we? How can people live this way? etc. However somehow I felt a strong desire to take photos of my surroundings, knowing that I would never ever see anything like this again. I took a walk down a dirt track that left the slum, and was a short cut to the railway track. One teenager stopped me and asked if I needed any help or I was lost. I told him I was ok and just carried on following the track. There were houses, or shacks, all along the path, people homes, some had made an effort. One house had cleared an area outside its front, where children were happily playing in their front garden. But most shacks hadn’t taken the same care.

 

I came to the end of track from where I could see a bridge, where the railway crossed a river. However hard I looked, I obviously could see the bridge but I couldn’t see the river. Then as I looked to my right I could see the river, well I could see the river’s bank, but I couldn’t see the river. The reason was simple: there was no water, the river was stationary, and the water couldn’t be seen because it had been replaced by human waste, mostly plastic, but everything related to human consumption was present. The river was so full of waste, it could no longer move. It was the worst thing I have seen since arriving here in India; it made me cry.

 

 

I pulled myself together, turned around and headed back to the slum. I was still early and continued to take more photos. I was approached by a middle age guy, who asked what I was doing. When I said I work for VSO, he smiled and shook my hand. I then decided I should not take any more photos.

When I arrived at class, Marie was late, the trains coming from a long way away are unpredictable and she can often being running late. One of the boys in the class had arrived and was keen to practise his English.

‘Good Morning Sir, how are you?’

‘Good Morning Norman’ I reply.

Norman which is pronounced Noor Man is an intelligent child.  Later I find out his dad has a lot of influence within the slum community. He is wearing a T shirt saying ‘Fries before guys’. It makes me smile. He has no idea what it really means, and the fact he is a bit on the chubby side, just adds to the irony.

I enter the classroom, and I am always blown away by the smell. It’s stale, and I can guess what it is. I have looked at the few books the classroom owns and every time, there are pages missing and torn. Further inspection shows that the pages have been eaten by something. Then further evidence is seen by large deposits of poo. The classroom is obviously inhabited by rats, and by the size of the teeth marks and the dropping, shows these creatures are not small.

The cleaner enters the classroom; she lives in the unit next door. Neva is her name, a lovely lady that surprisingly speaks great English. We have since become good friends and she will make tea and cook me rice. Every morning before class starts, she comes into the classroom and sweeps away all the rat droppings, then places a series of mats on the floor, for the children to sit on. I later find out she gets paid 300 Rupees a month for this job, just short of 4 pounds a month. She also gets an extra 1 pound 20 pence to supply water in a bucket, as the classroom has no running water for the toilet.

I talk about the rat problem with her; ‘chooha’ is Hindi for rat. She says they live in the corner of the classroom.  In this corner, there are all sorts of things stored that are not part of the school, but are storage for the community.  The school rents the room from the community, so in the corner of the classroom there is everything you could imagine being used in an Indian community. Things such as banners, masks, raffle boxes, tables, everything used in the many festivals that take place every year.

The children start to arrive and Marie still has not shown up, maybe I will be taking the lesson with the cleaner as my translator.

Neva is still talking about the rats. The children are now sitting on the floor. I am thinking I can’t believe the rats live in the classroom, why have they not been poisoned.

‘Sir, do you want to see the rats?’ Neva walks over to the corner of the room, and is just about ready to move the community stuff, so I can see them in their homes.

‘Are they big?’ I ask

‘Yes sir.’ She holds her hands apart indicating they are almost a foot long.

‘Come”, she says and walks me to the corner of the classroom.

I say ‘no, please, I can imagine what they look like’. Later I tell Marie that Neva wanted to show me the rats in the classroom, I say I can’t believe she was going to show me while the children were sitting there. Marie looks surprised,

‘What’s wrong with that?’

‘The children sitting there waiting to learn and if the rats are disturbed, they’ll run all around the classroom’.

‘John, do you think these children haven’t seen a few rats before?’

I just look at her and smile; once again, I am the one out of touch.

 

Marie says the rats are getting worse and are eating the books.  I told her I could see that.

‘Can’t you just poison them?’ I ask again.

‘No, the school would never do that’

She then explains the problem is that the rats are coming in through the window next to the toilet.  She explains that today a man is coming to seal the window. They have been waiting over 7 months for the window to be sealed.

So during the day’s teaching, a man comes and seals the window, while the lessons continue. Marie seems happy at last. The school day is finished and Neva comes into the classroom, they both look at the window and smile. At last the rats won’t be able to get into the classroom.

‘Does that not make the problem worse?’ I ask.

‘Why, no more rats,’ they both say at once.

‘But what about the rats that live here already, if they can’t get out of the classroom to eat and poo. Does that not mean they will have to eat more school books to survive and in doing so poo even more than they are already doing?’

There is a silence and we look at each other.  Who is right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. The rats live on.

 

Maybe not this one!

 

Legs, Feet and Toes, Bollywood Style

It was my second week teaching in the slum. After getting lost on three occasions on my first visit, I didn’t feel too confident about reaching my work place on time. I was correct in thinking that this still wasn’t going to be easy, and it was the first time I had taken the train to reach the slum. Last time I took the rickshaw all the way. So when I arrived at the station, I then had to decide to choose what way to exit, in other words, what side of the train track.

My decision was the wrong one and no rickshaw driver would take me to my destination; after trying four separate rickshaws, it was obvious I needed some help. Then, just as I was standing in the street trying to plan my next move, the heavens open up and I was now standing there in the rain.

But I wasn’t alone for long, and I was soon approached by a man holding an umbrella. I thought of some of my previous experiences, me and umbrellas, in this country are forming a strange and strong relationship.

‘Sir, can I help you?’ the man said, whilst holding the umbrella above me to shield me from the rain.

‘Yes, I am trying to get to the compound’ I replied.

‘Sir, you are the wrong side of the tracks, no rickshaw driver will take you there from this side. They would have to drive 15 minutes up the road to cross at the next bridge’

‘Ok’ I said not fully understanding what Mr. Umbrella Man was taking about.

‘Sir, you need to walk back into the station and cross the railway track and catch the rickshaw from the other side. There you can share a rickshaw to the compound, costing you 10 Rupees (8 pence)’

‘Ok, thanks my friend’ I reply.

‘Not to worrying sir, I will take you’.

So I am very grateful, and I walk as close as I can get to my new friend, sharing his umbrella. We enter the station, he points me to a blue wall, and tells me to follow that wall out of the station (I still refer to the blue wall now every day I go to work). I thank Mr. Umbrella Man and start walking. Still amazed by how helpful the Indian people are.

It is at this point, that I notice the worst smell I have experienced so far since coming to India. I look on the floor as I leave the station and there is poo everywhere: dogs, cats, rats, cow and even human. I since discovered, by a misfortune, that human poo is gathered in small plastic bags, which can be found, sometimes in bins, but most of the time just resting on the side of the road.

I employ an old technique that I learn whilst travelling many years ago, that when the smell is so bad that it almost makes you sick, simply only breath through your mouth – it does work to a certain degree. So I leave the station and approach the rickshaws, this time on the correct side of the track. I am still breathing through my mouth and finding it even more difficult to pronounce the name of the compound. The rickshaw driver looked at me like I was from another planet – a white man wanting to go to the slum, talking and breathing through his mouth at the same time. I am thinking ‘perhaps I am from a different planet’. I am not really shocked when he can’t understand me.

 

I eventually get a ride, and when I arrive at the compound, the rickshaw will not let me out of the vehicle.

‘Sir, you are lost, sir you do not want to get out here’.

I remember from last time I have reached my school in the slum. I remember the school opposite, where the school boy had walked me into the slum for the first time. I am 100% sure this is where I want to be.

I reply ‘Yes, this where I want to be’.

‘No sir, this is a slum area, you not want to stop here’.

‘Yes, I do’.

‘No, sir this is not for you, please’.

‘Yes, it is. This is where I work’.

I leave the rickshaw I pay him his 8 pence; he shakes his head.

‘Thank you, don’t worry I work here’, I say and off I go, watching every foot step to make sure I don’t step on anything unpleasant. I suppose I am the first white guy the driver as ever seen, and what is surprising to him is why would I want to stop at a slum? I suppose he thinks I should be stopping at the Gate of India to go sight- seeing.

I arrive at school, the children are always so glad to see me.

‘Good morning, Sir John’.

‘No’.

‘Ok, good morning John sir’.

‘Good morning’ I reply.

They won’t sit down until you tell them, and then when they sit on the floor, they are just waiting to be taught. This is very humbling for me, the respect they show me and the other adults is the highest I have ever seen. Their keenest to learn is also the highest I have ever experienced in my 20 years of teaching. It reminds me of a quote I read somewhere many years ago, and I have not really considered it until I have been teaching here in India.

I suppose teaching in most countries in the world, including the UK, as sad as it is, when you teach some children really do not want to learn. But here they do, and the quote is.

‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’

Tae Te Ching

So, if I am standing in the front of a class of 29 children that want to learn, with no desk, and no chairs, I really must want to teach them. After a morning of teaching grammar and reading, it is lunch time.

I am told by Marie, the teacher in my class,that all the teachers from the compound will be meeting in the community room, the same size room as the classroom in the same tower block. I am told that we all have lunch together when we can. So I haven’t got far to walk, just on the same floor and around the corner.

When Marie and myself reach the community room, I see there are about 14 teachers sitting on the floor. I am told that I must remove my shoes for lunch, I look at everyone else and see they are all bare footed, I followed and removed my socks as well, I didn’t want to be seen as the odd one out. Even though everything about me compared to these people was so different, I couldn’t start to describe it.

I enter the room, sit down on the floor; it’s been a long time since I have sat on the floor, probably the last time being when my children were young and I would spend hours playing.

But that was a long time ago, after sitting for less than 5 minutes, my back and legs (being crossed) were starting to ache. I move from one bum cheek to another, trying to transfer the weight. I was struggling. I kept moving in an uncomfortable manner, trying to smile to the room full of teachers that were trying their best not to look at me and showing that they knew I was in discomfort. Perhaps they were not looking me in danger of laughing at this poor white guy. I couldn’t bear this sitting cross legged for much longer, I needed to move. I bum shuffled and put my back against the wall. That’s better I was thinking.

After about 30 minutes of Hindi conversation, I realised how different I was sitting here. These teachers were probably all thinking the same thing. What is this guy doing here? I felt totally isolation, just like a child must feel when they come from another country, not knowing any language and they start their first day at school.

I sit there, listening to them all talking and laughing. Then it is my moment, the boss Mr Godvad looks at me, showing his arm in my direction, and it is at this point I understand the only word I have listen to for 30 minutes, that word being ‘John’.

I have been introduced and I assume told I will be joining their team, all the teachers nod their heads and say hello. I am now a real teacher in a Mumbai slum.

I am still sitting there. Then the lunch starts, all the teachers get their tiffin tins from their bags; the curries and breads are all shared and passed around. I am looking amazed, just comparing this lunch time to a school staff room in the UK. Sharing lunch cooked at home every day, never.

They look at me, ‘do you want some food?’ Marie asks me.

‘OK, thank you,’ they all watch me with interest, I am on show, eating with my hands and trying my best to look like I do this every day.

I then go for my lunch, one apple and a banana. They look at me, again, I am the alien.

‘Have you no tiffin tin?’ (that being the small metal tins everyone keeps their lunch, keeping it warm)

‘No’ I reply.

I then start to explain to Marie and Godvad that I don’t eat much at lunch time as it makes me feel tired. They ask are all western people like that?  I say no just me. I am not sure they believe me, and think I just don’t like eating their food. This was not the case and I taste everything I can that is passed around.

It is at this point with my back to the wall, I hear a splashing sound from outside. I look up at the window. We are on the first four of a 7 story tower block, the splashing is coming from above. I look and a yellow liquid comes flying past the window, hitting the street or pathway below. No! Was that urine? I was thinking. I sit there not knowing what to say. The teachers look and then just continue talking and eating.

I then at this point feel I must stretch my legs, they have now been crossed for nearly an hour. All the teachers are all sitting crossed legged and backs straight, again I am the odd one out, I can’t do this any longer, my legs have gone numb. I unfold my legs trying not to look like I am in pain. My legs, feet and toes need to be in front of me.

After I have placed my feet in front of me, I look down at them. They are ugly; feet just are. The blood starts to flow back in my legs, feet and toes. The teachers all look at me. I know I haven’t got long before I have to fold them back under me again. No one wants to look at someone else’s feet when they are eating, I realise I might have offended them, so once the blood as reached my toes, I have to put them away again. So under they go.  My bum is now feeling the numbness. I am thinking I might need a crane to get me up of the floor when lunch finally finishes.

I must try to join into a conversation to keep my mind off of the pain I am experiencing just sitting on the floor for so long. I know I should never had stopped those yoga classes I used to do many years ago.

‘Sir, what are those things floating in your bottle of water?’

‘I am not sure what you, call them in English,’ Govad replies.

Google translate to the rescue.

‘Basil seeds, they are good for digestion’.

I am surprised and I show that I am interested, and wanting to continue with a conversation. Then from outside the window I hear another sound, I look around a see a massive green rug go flying pass the window. I look at Govad, who just smiles and continues to talk about basil seeds. Then, trying to keep one eye on Govad talking, I look out of the window again. This time, a brown semi-liquid substance comes past the window. That was definitely poo, and lots of it. Govad again sees it and continues to talk about basil seeds.

View From The Window

 

I am in shock, but smile and keep talking like what I have just seen being thrown out of the windows is a normal occurrence for me.

Lunch is over and back to teaching.  At the end of the day I am back in the rickshaw on to the train and back to the hotel. What a day, I am thinking as I walk back to the hotel.

As I am walking along the road, I see a massive gathering of people outside my hotel. What’s going on? I hope the family are ok? I start to jog to see why there are so many people at the hotel. As I get closer, a see a massive white shining light, that is lighting up the restaurant’s name. ‘Le Café’ I then see cameras everywhere. I see the security guard.

‘What’s going on?’ I say.

‘Bollywood has come to the hotel to use the café in a famous film’.

‘Wow, really’.

‘Yes sir, the café is closed, they are filming now’.

‘Great’.

Fame as come to me, I wonder if there is anyway of sneaking into the café and get a small part as an extra. Always fancied myself as a Bollywood actor, who knows, they might even want me to do a bit of my daddy dancing.

I enter the hotel, people, actors, actresses everywhere. I am told again that Le Café is closed whilst they are filming, but the restaurant is open. I get to the room; the boys and Michelle are bouncing off the walls.

‘Dad, Bollywood is here in our hotel!’

‘I know, shall we see if we can get a look?’

I am still thinking daddy dancing here I come.

We get down to the restaurant and there are so many people around. We take a seat, and realise that sadly, we will not be part of the show.  No English extras are needed, so all we can do is order some lovely Indian food.

The boss of the hotel comes in to see us. Ashish is a lovely guy, who has really looked after us whilst staying in his hotel. He especially enjoys the boys company and always makes time to help and say hello.

Michelle says to him, you must feel proud that Bollywood is using your hotel to shoot a new film. As modest as he is, he just plays it all down, as if these things could occur every day in his hotel. We all know they don’t and this is special.

We talk some more, then he ask if the boys would like to meet the actress. One of the most famous actresses in India.

‘Yes, please’, they both reply together.

‘Really, can you organise that, Ashish’ Michelle asks.

‘For my English Family, of course’ he replies.

The boys look at each other, then at us, ‘Wow!’

Then they look at the clothes they are wearing and both ask if they can go back to the room and get changed. It’s a Tuesday night.  They are already up past their bedtimes and now they are going to meet one of the most famous actresses in India. This is mad, I am thinking. Again ‘Only In Khush India’

The boys leave the table, run out of the restaurant and gallop upstairs like they are on a mission. Five minutes later they look like they are ready to go to a wedding, they have managed to find their best clothes, and were wearing them in style. Their hair was gelled so much you could almost see their scalps; they must think that this is a good look. Michelle and I look at each other and smile. They sit down at the table again, waiting for their meal as if nothing has happened. But really they are obviously waiting for their big moment and are waiting to meet the famous actress.

Ashish enters the restaurant and looks at the boys new look and smiles.

‘Looking good boys, I will send her through to see you in a few minutes.’

True to his word, the door opens, and an amazing looking women is standing next to our table. She seems like she has been told to meet some people and it is a chore, I suppose she gets this all the time. She then looks down and see we are western and smiles. We get some photos; her name is Sonali Seghal. She then really enjoys taking to the boys and says to make sure we watch the film that was being filmed in our hotel that night.  It’ll be out in April 2018.

 

When she leaves, we say to each other that was amazing. We then thank Ashish for the opportunity to meet a Bollywood actress, and get back to eating our Indian food.

I am thinking, even more than I was earlier, what a day! I have gone from teaching in a Mumbai slum, having my legs crossed for nearly 2 hours, and seeing poo being thrown out of a window, to nearly appearing in a Bollywood film and meeting a famous Indian actress.

Customs House Shipment Arrived

 

This was a long day, and really introduced me into the Indian way of living. If there is one thing that you need in bucket loads, that is PATIENCE. I have just finished reading a good book, ‘Be Like Water’, where the message of the book is just to go with the flow. Living in India, this simple principle is a necessity.

We are told via Michelle’s school that our shipment of personal belongs had arrived at the dock and must be picked up. Because Michelle was working, I was the lucky one to be able to go to the dock and pick up all our stuff. It’s not the first time that I have been involved in collecting goods from sea transport; the first being when we returned from New Zealand. This experience wasn’t pleasant and I remember all the paperwork that was involved. Judging by my experience collecting goods coming from New Zealand to the UK, I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy or quick experience. I also knew that being here in India, I would be safe in thinking that this could be a lot more difficult.

Mr Ramesh was the person employed by Michelle’s school to help all the expats with all these settling in processes. A small guy, smaller than me, (in fact I almost feel tall in his company). That is something that I am not used at all, it almost feels uncomfortable being taller than someone. Mr Ramesh means well, but it seems that he is cutting himself short, if you pardon the pun, and is given so many jobs to do that not one job gets done properly or on time.

I wait at the hotel where I am told Mr Ramesh will come with a driver and they will drive me to the port, to sort out all the paperwork. I am told the journey to the port will take 1 and a half hours. Anyway, true to form Mr. Ramesh was supposed to pick me up at 9.00am, but doesn’t show until nearly 11.00. I am thinking this is a day I can write of, without too much excitement. I sit in the back of the car, the driver and Mr Ramesh in the front. We exchange a greeting, and I ask how long it will take to get to the dock, and how long will the whole process take. He replies hour and half to get there, and all day doing the paperwork. Great.

That won’t make it.

 

We leave Old Mumbai over the bridge and enter Navi Mumbai, the traffic is moving, so I sit back and relax. Mr Ramesh phone is ringing every 2 minutes, and he seems to be really over-worked, a very busy man. I write my diary, thinking the road is at least a good one and the traffic is moving. I was soon to find out that I was wrong.

 

The driver leaves the main road, stops the car and asks many people for the direction to the dock. I am thinking surely Mr Ramesh has been here before, he says he has but he can’t remember the way. Soon we are off road, the tarmac has completely disappeared and the roads are made of red clay. I am thinking ‘how can this be the way to the dock?’ I am reassured that this is the way by Mr. Ramesh. The pot holes are massive; the road really is not a road, but just a track.

 

Neither will that

 

‘How can this road be the way to the docks’ I enquire?

‘You see sir, this is the road, all the trucks, and container lorries have worn it out,’ Mr Ramesh replies.

I look about me and he is right. All I can see are massive trucks and transporter vehicles. In fact, there are not many cars other than us that are around. The road is so bumpy, I am thrown around in the back of the car like a rag doll. It reminded me of travelling in South America, in particular, when you have approach a border. There is usually a piece of land that no country really owns, separating two countries next to each other. Because no one country take responsibility for the land, the road between the borders becomes nearly un-drivable, especially in countries where there is a lot of rain. This land is sometimes referred to as ‘no man’s land’.

But, I am thinking this is a major link to one of Indian largest ports, and is used every day. It does suffer from the rain, like now in the monsoon season, but it is not a road that no one owns. I am thinking there is no excuse for the rood to be in such a bad way. Mr Ramesh says every year the road is rebuilt, but because of the size of the trucks and transporters, teamed up with the massive amount of rain, they simply erode away. And every year it is the same -they are rebuilt and eroded away. For whatever reason, the journey isn’t a good one. The traffic is just about moving, and I am thinking that I can’t wait for the journey to finish.

Anyway, the journey took 2 and a half hours. The car pulled up and Mr. Ramesh goes walking around outside a building. He is looking for our agent, who the school employed to do all the paperwork, so that my shipment can be released. I wait in the back of the car, the driver speaks no English so we both sit in silence. After about 20 minutes Mr Ramesh returns to the car, telling me, ‘the agent is here, come.’

I introduce myself to the agent and after signing a paper entry book, we are allowed through some iron bars into a large area.

‘’Is this the port, where I check that all my shipment has arrived?’ I ask.

‘Yes, but first we have to do all the paperwork’ the agent tells me.

‘How long will that take?’

‘Who knows a few hours, maybe all day.’

So we entered into the office, I am asked to give the agent Michelle’s passport. Michelle’s passport carries all the power, she is the one with the working visa.

The agent takes over and I am told to take a seat; it’s a good job I had come prepared and I read. After 10 minutes, the agent and one of the customer officers comes and see me, asking if I have Michelle’s old passport. I say no, even though I remember now it did say bring your old passport with you. Why they need that is beyond thinking about. I am then told to sit and wait again. I talk to another guy, who seems to be in the same situation as me. We talk, he is moving back to India from the UK, to be with his sick father. He tells me he has brought all his furniture from the UK, a whole four bedroom house full of furniture. It make our little personal effects seem very small. I asked him if he has been here before and explains that he has. He then says it is not quick here; expect to be waiting around for hours.

Another two hours go by, and I am still reading, Mr Ramesh, comes to see me every 30 minutes to check, I am still alive and I haven’t died of boredom.

Finally after waiting in this building for nearly 2 and half hours, the agent and the customs officer come and say that my shipment is ready for me to check over.

I am armed with my receipt that details all the items that I have sent to India. I will need to check that they are all there, and the customs officer will need to check to see what items I have brought over from the UK, making sure they are all legally allowed to enter India. By this stage of travelling and waiting all day, I am wishing that we had not bothered shipping any items at all!

I am then told some items have duty on them and I will be further charged. I am not sure this is true but if it isn’t a lot of money then I will just keep quiet, to quicken the process and hopeful get out of here.

We are walked down to a massive warehouse where there are people’s individual shipments all spaced out on their own piece of floor space. I see the Indian guy that I had been talking to earlier and the amount of stuff that he had would take a lot of checking. I looked at my stuff; it’s been so long since we packed it all away to come to India, I had forgotten what we had taken. It wasn’t that much stuff, 10 boxes: few clothes and some books. Most of the stuff was for the boys: books, trumpets, tennis rackets and snooker cues.

The agent comes over after another 30 minute wait, and says the officer will be here soon. I look around the warehouse, next to my small shipment is a massive shipment from Iran, mountains of cashew nuts. I am thinking that that lot most be worth thousands of pounds.

The officer and the agent final come over, with another guy carrying a knife. It is his job using the knife to cut open the packaging and look inside at my goods. Later after inspection it is his job to seal the packaging back to what it was like, ready to be transported to our home. This in itself could be a problem because we were still living in the hotel, so once all the goods have been checked, everything was going to be transported to Michelle’s school.

The customer officer looks inside, ask if I have anything electrical and I don’t, so no duty there. He then sees I have some kitchen and cooking utensils, he shakes his head.

‘Sir, you will have to pay duty on them.’

‘Ok’ I say, thinking it shouldn’t be much on a cheese grater and few knives.

 

 

He then says what are all these boxes full of, I explain that my wife and I are teachers, most of the boxes are books or games for two children. He looks in one and says ok.

He is about to walk off, and I am thinking shouldn’t be long now, and only duty to pay on the cheese grater, and he looks once more, at my itinerary.

‘What this?’ he says, ‘a table.  That is furniture and that will have duty to be paid’

I look at the itinerary and then at my good. I don’t remember shipping any furniture over here, I am thinking. Then I realise it’s the children’s 5 and half foot snooker table.

 

 

I tell him ‘that is not furniture, sir, that is a game, it is a snooker table.’

‘It is still a table, and a table is furniture, therefore duty to be paid’

I think about arguing my point further, and the agent then steps into my defence, I was wondering what I had paid him for, so far.

‘It is a children’s game, not furniture’ he repeats.

The customer office just shakes his head, looks at the guy with the knife and walks off. Then the guy with the knife puts down the knife and goes for the tape, and starts to repack my goods.

‘Well, that’s it I guess’ I say, thinking this could have been worse.

‘No,’ the agent says, ‘that’s the first stage.’

What else needs to be done? They have checked my stuff, stung me on my cheese grater and turned my snooker table into a dining table’

‘No, sir, the Chief Customs Officer will need to check.’

I look to the heavens, take a deep breath and decide to walk around the warehouse.  This situation was totally out of my hands and getting frustrated and angry wasn’t going to make the process any quicker.

After further hour, an important looking guy turns up in a suit. That must be the chief, I quicken my walk nearly into a run, and stand next to my shipment. I stand to attention, just like a guy in the army would stand by his bed waiting for all his equipment to be checked. Arms to my sides, no smiling, just hoping the chief will come to me, check my stuff and I can get out of here.

He walks up to me, and shakes my hand. The agent gives him the itinerary and Michelle’s passport. Then he asks the same question as the first customs officer. He then shouts, and just like magic, the man with a knife appears, just like Mr. Ben from nowhere. He waits for the cutting-open service to be repeated again. The chief looks at my itinerary and the guy goes to work, cutting the tape he has just taped up an hour ago.

‘Table, (Snooker, not dining) kitchen utensils, (cheese grater and knives) are liable for duty’ he says.

 

‘Ok’ I say. Thinking we must be done now.

The man with the knife then goes about his work and tapes the boxes back together for the second time.

I walk out of the warehouse, Mr Ramesh is waiting, right I say back home.

‘No sir, more paperwork, but nearly there’

‘How long will this take?’ I say. My patience being tested like never before.

‘Just need to sign it off’, the agent says.

We walk back to the office and I am expecting to sign a piece of paper and then we are on our way back. I am told to sit where I was sitting before for nearly 3 hours reading. I sit for ten minutes and I can’t take it any longer. I go in search for the agent. I find him, I almost feeling like pinning him to the wall.

‘What’s the problem, now?’ I say.

‘The Chief has gone to lunch’

What, its nearly 6 o’clock, and why should that matter?

‘Sir, he has your wife’s passport, and we can’t disturb him’

‘No………’

Please, I am thinking this could be another introduction into a great country that we have decided to live in. I talk to the Indian guy, who is also waiting for the chief to finish his lunch. We both smile, knowing there is nothing we can do to change the situation.

One hour later Michelle’s passport is returned, I thank the agent and leave the building. It has taken all day to check my shipment here, and then I realise that I still have a two hour journey home on that bad road.

I sit in the back of Mr Ramesh’s car, ready to leave this place behind me. Just as we pull away from the costumers building, I look up. I see that like anything these days, this particular service, which would have once been done by government officials, is now contracted out. I look to see the name of the contractors that I had just spend the last 6 hours with.

And there in front of me…..they are called ‘SPEEDY’…….

 

Speedy I don’t think so!

 

I can only laugh.

Teaching in a Mumbai Slum

 

So after nearly 4 hours on trains, taxis and rickshaws I arrive at one of Mumbai’s largest slums. This is where I have volunteered to teach for two days week for as long as we stay in India.

The word ‘slum’ is not a word that I like; sometimes these areas are called ‘compounds’, and I am not sure I like that term much either. But here mostly they are called ‘slums’.

The slum that I am working in as been described as a vertical slum.  In 2003, the Indian Government decided to rehouse some of the homeless people and even destroy an original slum so people could move here.  They call this rehabilitation, another word that I don’t much like. I thought this word only referred to animals not people. They built 65 ugly- looking concrete buildings, 9 floors in each block.  This slum now houses an estimated 9300 people. The buildings look like they have never been painted and seem to look a lot older than their 14 years. They were, of course, provided with electricity, but soon after the first bills were due to be paid 14 years ago, no one could afford to pay them. So much of the compound goes without electricity and the lifts have not been operational for years. I have been told that people have been known to dig up the ground near their tower block and try to physically transfer live electricity to their home. I have yet to visit my work place at night, I am not sure that I will, but I can imagine it to be a dark place, in more than just the lack of light.

 

 

Once I finally arrived at my destination, I had a piece of paper that was given to me at the office of the Voluntary Schools Organisation, (which I will now refer to as VSO.) On this piece of paper is the school’s address, which is within the slum. The paper was nearly wore out from the amount of times the poor rickshaw driver had to refer to it and ask directions. This for those who have been following my blog, was the rickshaw driver, ‘No map’.

 

I had to get to a private school that was directly opposite the slum, and hopefully work out the route from there to get to teaching and the teachers. As I stepped out of the rickshaw with only a piece of worn paper to help me, I realised that this wouldn’t be easy. However for the first time being here in India, I felt alive, vulnerable, but alive. I had no idea what to do next, where I was going and how I was going to find the school. I stood for a moment and smiled to myself, I quite enjoy this strange feeling, and it is one I have not had since travelling on my own nearly 30 years ago.

 

 

Anyway, I was soon woken from my day dreaming and the first thing I noticed was all the rubbish and dirt covering the roads and the pavements. I was thinking this certainly would not be a place to wear sandals. I looked up and I could see the yellowy coloured concrete tower blocks, could they be the slum that I would be working in?

I said goodbye to ‘No Map’ and started to slowly walk away from the rickshaw. He pulled up alongside me, and said. ‘Sir, are you sure you have the right address?’

He was worried about me, I was worried about me. I had been in Mr No Maps rickshaw for nearly an hour, and we had sort of built up a relationship. I guess there was no way that he could understand how a white westerner could end up here.

I smiled to him and said thank you, this is where I want to be. And he drove off.

I was then soon approached by a young boy, guessing I would say he was about 12. He was dressed in a clean and colourful school uniform; he attended the private school that was opposite the slum.

‘Sir, can I help you, where do want to go’

I was thinking my answer could have been back to the UK, but no I was on a mission, and the white piece of worn paper reappeared.

‘I am looking for VSO, No. 25, B Wing Sai Darber, Co-op Society, room number 112, first floor.’

The boy looked at the paper.

‘Voluntary Schools Organisation, I know follow me’. At this point lots of the boys friends appeared, all trying to speak to me at once, ‘where you from sir?’, ‘why are you here, sir?’. There must have been 20 boys, all trying to help me. I pointed at the first boy and said:

‘I will follow you,’

How lucky was that, I was thinking, so the piece of paper went safely back into my pocket and I followed him. These were my first memories of my new work place. I had to step over so much rubbish on the floor, including dead rats, and all sorts of things that I will save for another time to describe. We walked passed two more tower blocks, turning left and then right, I was still following, concentrating where to place every footstep in a safe a clean position. I was thinking ‘this can’t be where VSO is teaching, surely not’. The boy kept reassuring me that he knew where he was going, so I followed.

 

We entered a tower block, and this reminded me of entering tower blocks back at home when I use to collect insurance premiums for the Prudential. I was 18, and it was in the late 80’s. I worked in areas such as Tottenham and Camden Town, but even though these building were similarly built and looked the same, the differences certainly outweighed the similarities.

By the time we entered, it was approaching mid-day, but it was dark. I followed the boy up the stairs, there was a dog guarding the corridor, he barked. I could tell he didn’t like me, I was right, but that is another story.

 

We move down to the end of the corridor the last room at the end of the corridor,

‘Here, sir this VSO.’

I looked up and see a poster advertising VSO.

‘Thank you,’ I said to boy. ‘Many, many thanks. I would never have found this place without you.’

I was thinking ‘should I give him some money?’, but I didn’t.  We shook hands and he walked off.

I looked into the room, this is the school, the classroom, really. The room is about 18 feet by 12 feet. There was a chalkboard about the size 3 foot by 2 foot. There are no desks. In the corner of the room, there is a door, which I assume is the toilet, but I wasn’t about to look inside to check it out.

I saw two ladies in their forties, sitting on the floor eating their lunch. I speak first.

‘Are you Marie, from VSO? I am John I was told to meet you here. I am from England and I am a teacher living here in Mumbai. I am here to volunteer and help teach in your school.’

‘Yes I am Marie, I was told you would be phoning me.’

‘No, I thought it might be easier just to turn up’ as I wiped the sweat from my brow.

‘It’s good to meet you, you are welcome at our school.’

She got up and shook my hand, the other lady smiled, she didn’t speak much English. Marie was the teacher that I have asked to help, while I am here. I was told at the office that this would be the best place for to me to work, because it was the closest to where I was living. Also, the only way I could use my 20 years of teaching experience would be for me to teach English. And anyone who knows me well, that is not my best subject!

VSO helps all children across Mumbai and Pune and has been running for 30 years. When I decide to volunteer for this organisation, it had a good name and good reputation. The organisation helps children that can’t afford to go to school. Some children on the slums can’t afford to go to school, because they are working. From the age of 7, some children will not attend school, they might have to roam the streets begging or collecting plastic bottles, so they can help themselves and family have enough money to eat. VSO provides schooling to such children, and drive school buses to the slums where the children enter the bus and are taught. The thinking is if they can’t get to school, the school can go to them.

In this case, VSO provides English lessons to children in two separate classes, one class in the morning and one class in the afternoon. In Marie’s class there are 29 children in the morning and 19 in the afternoon. Most children that attend these classes also attend state school, but not all of them. Some children that attend Marie’s English class don’t go to school at all.

Here in India, the government school children go to school either in the morning or the afternoon; depending on their ability, here it is called Standard. So VSO is a service to provide the children with additional education, either in the morning or afternoon, because no child in a government school goes all day.

VSO is a fund raiser charity and can only exist by people giving money for these services to continue.

I find out talking to Marie that she has to travel nearly two hours one way by train to get to school every day. That is a job on its own, without a full day’s teaching and then another two hours back every night. She is about late 40’s, a tiny women, who is Catholic. Her first language is English, therefore enabling her to teach English. She is married and has a teenage daughter. A wonderful women, and I already know we will be friends.

Just as I continued with the conversation, the area manager that I briefly met at the office is keen to show me around all the other tower blocks. The organisation rents rooms to be used as classrooms to teach in from the community. VSO has about 9 rooms rented on the compound. As I said, I will be with Marie teaching only English.

 

Govad, the area manager, talks to me about VSO and promotes what a good job they are doing. He shows me the computer room, which is the same size as Marie’s room housing about 10 computers. I am impressed; he explained that these computers are the only computers that children will see. Every class has one afternoon a week to use them.

As we walked to the next class, there is a load of noise and some youths look like they might be fighting.

‘Don’t worry, John, that’s just a drug war.’

‘Really?’ I say. I am thinking the only person who is going to learn the most from this teaching experience is me.

He just calmly turned away and walked in another direction. I say ‘really? A drug war?’

‘Yes. Common here’.

He then goes on to say there are 3 rapes a week, and 1 murder a month in this area.

I really didn’t know what to say to this, it shocked me a bit. Later I think this can’t be true, but after reading about my new work place, these statistics are true. Maybe it will be wise never to come here at night time, with or without electricity.

Lunch is over and I follow Govad back to Marie’s classroom. I entered the classroom and see the children sitting on the floor.  As I enter the classroom, they all stand up together. They are amazed that someone foreign will be teaching them.

‘Hello Sir, welcome to our classroom’

‘Pleased to meet you Sir John’

At this point I say hello, and say ‘you cannot call me Sir John’

Marie smiles, ‘Ok, John Sir’

So the children all chant together ‘welcome to our classroom, please to meet you John Sir’

The lesson is started by Marie, a simple grammar lesson, the children show respect and are keen to learn. When the lesson comes to an end the children all stand up, take their reversed positions ready to sing.

They sing four songs in English, one of them being the Hokey Pokey. I watch and smile as they perform. Then they all stop, one child is selected to come to the front of the class. This child is the chosen leader,

‘At ease, attention, at ease attention.’ she shouts confidently.

Then the whole class including the teacher sing the Indian National Anthem. Later I have seen that the National Anthem sung at the end of every class.

Wow, I think.

I have another moment to myself standing in front of my new class.

This is why I am a teacher, just to give something to the children.

I really haven’t been interested in anything else since becoming a teacher nearly 20 years ago. Giving something to the children is all I have ever cared about. I have never been the slightest bit interested in tests, levels and statistics. I feel if a child is trying his or her hardest, what else should matter?  I have also not been interested in become a headteacher, (that’s my wife’s role); to do this you become a manager and no longer are a teacher. So, if I wanted to be a manager of people, why would I choose do that in a school? So with all these reasons, this is probably why I have ended up, here, teaching for free on a Mumbai slum!

I take one more look at the children, thinking I hope I can give these children something. I hope I can make a difference. Whether I do make a difference or not, only time will tell, but teaching here will be fun and a great learning experience for me. It shouldn’t be difficult to teach these children, however I think it will be difficult to say goodbye to them when the time comes.

 

Rickshaws Versus Taxis

It’s not easy being a driver here in Mumbai

 

After experiencing the train, I know that without their services, the whole of Mumbai would be at a standstill.

This is also a true when using the Rickshaw and Taxis; without them, again. Mumbai would be immobile.

Before I arrived, I had a real ambition that I would buy an Auto Rickshaw, and drive it around town. This ambition was quickly squashed, when I was told that I could not legally drive a three wheeled vehicle as a foreigner living in Mumbai. However, I was told I could drive a motor cycle or car. I was a bit put back with this news and the fact I can only drive a vehicle with an even amount of wheels has deterred me from driving altogether.

 

 

Since living here I must admit that I have been guilty of using the internet taxi services, Uber, which can be easier. However this method of transport is nowhere near as much fun and can be without character.

I have a good friend back home who is a London Black cab driver and is struggling since the arrival of the internet services competitors. And, just like at home, the only true characters you meet driving cabs and taxis are the people that are trained and have been doing it all their lives.

The same applies here in Mumbai.  I have had some of my most memorable experiences using the Rickshaws and Taxi services.

It is sort of important to know that the Rickshaw (3wheelers) do not really compete against the taxis. The reason being is the Rickshaws are not allowed into the centre of Mumbai; only taxis can be waiting in the streets. The same is true with taxi drivers, not many are seen waiting in the streets outside the centre. However taxis can take a fare out of the centre to the suburbs.

I have meet some really interesting characters. I will list them here, in no particular order of time or which I have remembered the most.

Rap Singer:

This was one, if not the first time, I had got into a taxi in Mumbai. This was certainly the first time I had been in taxi on my own. I was travelling into the city to meet the organisation that I was going to volunteer my teaching services to in the slum areas of Mumbai. I had realised that if I caught the train, it would be easier to start with, then get a taxi to the office block I had to go to in the centre of town.

After I left the station and fighting my way through the crowds where, incidentally, I saw a cow lying in the middle of the street.  Nothing unusual there, except lying right next to it, was a massive dead rat. This was one of the moments where I came up with the title of this blog. ‘Only In Khush India.’

There, the taxis were all lining the streets waiting for a fare. I had been warned, unlike the rickshaw drivers, that have to use a meter; the taxi drivers have more power, and not always, but sometimes, a price as to be agreed before taking the ride.

To the first taxi driver I see, I shout out of the name of the train station nearest to where I wanted to go. I have decided to take a taxi because I couldn’t risk going all the way to this railway station by train. I would have had to change lines twice and I didn’t fancy the danger factor of this, hence a taxi was needed.

I first realised that there could be language problem and after repeating the name three times, the taxi driver nodded his head. This meaning ‘yes get in’. So I am in, I realise by previously looking at the map it is only a 2km journey, so it shouldn’t be too much money. After a few arguments in Hindi and cockney rhyming slang, and a few smiles, the price is agreed. Rupees 50 (around 45 pence). I now know that this was too much to pay, but I was on my way.

The music was kicking out in the car of course in Hindi. And it seems the only way a taxi driver can play this is LOUD.

He starts to sing and is competing against the volume of the music. I sit in the back thinking he must turn this down soon.

He must have heard what I was thinking and turns the music off looks over his shoulder at me in the back of the taxi and says:

‘traffic’

I then think this is the time, even though he is not looking at the road, where we could have a conversation. Oh no, he then turns back to facing the road, and the music goes on full blast again. The singing continues and even a few shoulder shimmies are introduced. I sit back and smile, no conversation I guess.

But no, music is turned off once again, the singing stops, the shoulders stop moving and the head turns around to face me.

Conversation I am thinking. No wrong again.

‘Traffic’ he says again this time louder.

‘Yes’ I say hoping I can talk to him and perhaps the music and singing will stop.

But no, he turns back to the front, puts the music on again and the singing starts again. He repeats this for the whole 20 minute journey.

The traffic rap comes to stop where he drops me off; my ears are ringing. I pay the money, and am really glad to be out of the taxi. It’s only when he pulls away that I realise I have been dropped off at the wrong railway station.

No Map:

This is on the same day, and after finally making the meeting. I am told to go straight to the slum school that day to meet the teachers. So back into another taxi, and then a train.

I am armed with a piece of paper with an address but realise getting there over the other side of town isn’t going to be easy.

After getting out at the train station that I think is near to my first showing at the school, I need to get a ride. This time being in the suburb, it is a rickshaw that I need. I am more familiar with these and have used them many times before.

I approach a rickshaw, or ‘auto’ as they are commonly known as. I met the driver’s eye, I tell him in my London accent where I want to go. I have to make sure he understands my destination, I am getting tired and have now been transporting myself around for over two hours. I wanted to look fresh for my first experience of working in the slum school. I needed to be sure that this driver knows where he was going.

I say my destination, he repeats its name. I am thinking that is a good sign.

He repeats again and then again. I say ‘you know where you are going?’ He says ‘yes’ and keeps repeating the destination.

He speaks a bit of English, that’s good I am thinking. He repeats the destination for the fourth time. ‘Are you sure you know where you are going?’, he replies in perfect English.

‘Yes, don’t worry’.

I sit back and he is still repeating the destination. Oh no, not another rap song with the destination being the title. I am thinking.

‘Ok’ I say

‘Yes no worry’ he replies.

The journey continues. After 5 minutes he stops the rickshaw.

‘Ok’ I say

‘Yes, no worry, sir’

‘Good’

Then he doesn’t continue, he looks me in the eye and says

‘Sir, Google Map?’

 

A line of Rickshaws, the black ants of Mumbai

 

Horn Of Plenty:

 

After sussing on how to get to the voluntary schools site, life seems part of a routine. It took me a few weeks, but I realised it is really important what side of the railway track you leave the station by. By leaving on the wrong side, a rickshaw might have to drive 10 minutes up the road to a bridge that crosses the track. That lessons was learnt on one trip going to school.

Anyway, after a few mistakes, I had realised that if I did get out of the train on the correct side of the track, I could catch a rickshaw and it would only be a ten minute ride to my school site. But the other thing I didn’t realise that the rickshaws on this side of the track were shared. You paid rupee 10 (around 8p) and you are driven to the slum compound, where I work. The rickshaws here only go back and forward from the slum to the station.

So after a day’s teaching on the compound, I made my way to catch a rickshaw back to the station something, as I have said, was like a routine. However this particular time it wasn’t.

I walked across the road and I could hear a loud speaker from somewhere. I then realised it was coming from the rickshaw that was approaching me. It looked to be in mint condition and it was sparkling. The young guy behind the wheel was smiling, even though the sound from the machine was deafening. I knew at once this rickshaw had my name on it. He stopped and smiled. He then pressed a button that had visible wire connected to it. It was his horn and he was proud of it. He had wired a sound machine horn to the speakers that were protruding from the back of the vehicle. He pressed it again and smiled, as if to say what do you think? It reminded me of my youth and when I got my first radio cassette player wired up in my first car. But this wasn’t Luther Vandross hitting the air waves; this was one almighty electronic horn and similar sound to the vuvuzelas that were used in the South African world cup, and because they were so loud they were banded.

So I am thinking, this should be a bit of a laugh, until from nowhere three middle age women appeared. I was sitting in the back covering my ears, when I realised that I now had to share the Horn Of Plenty with other riders. I was squashed in, flesh on flesh squeezed against the rails of the Rickshaw. Just above my head there was a sign saying ‘max. passengers 3’. Yeah, right. So off we go with a loud horn to show we were on our way.

The driver slows down and sees a friend and shouts out in Hindi, which I can only guess means what do you think of my new horn and a second blast is given. The three women are not amused, and to be honest, I am not sure I am either. A ten minute ride to the station and it seems he just couldn’t help but continue to press the button. He stops again and another friend just shakes his head as he hears the piercing sound. But this time the horn seems to have attracted more attention. More people seem to want to enter the already overcrowded rickshaw. His smiles and thinks to himself ‘this horn is helping my business’. I am thinking this is just a coincidence. But for whatever reason more passengers are ready to embark.

A rickshaw usually takes four people, sometimes a friend will sit at the front with the driver and not pay, making a total of 5 people in the rickshaw.

But the Horn Of Plenty is ready for more, and two women and a man are keen to enter, I am not sure they are even aware of its sound capacities. The Horn Driver looks at his mate, as if to say ‘look at me’. We have to shuffle the pack, and I am moved to the front of the vehicle next to the driver and the other man goes on the other side. It is so cramped, I am not even given a piece of seat to sit on, and I am just balanced next to the driver. We are all ready to move on, but not without a Horn blast. It is then I realise that this thing has speaker at the front as well – the noise is unbearable. I try to smile through gritted teeth, all the other passengers are silent and in fact, not at all amused by this young guy’s new toy.

We arrive at the station and get out and pay our rupees 10. The Horn of Plenty has doubled his income on this journey. He smiles and gives us one last loud blast before he leaves, skidding away looking for more fun.

Problem Driver:

This memorable experience occurred when the boys and I had to get a taxi home from their football training. The journey home is never a good one and at 6.30pm, the traffic is terrible; the journey can take anywhere between 20 minutes up to 1 hour. It is also never easy to get a taxi to go to the other side of Mumbai.

After a few tries, we managed to find a driver that was willing to take the fare. He seemed a friendly guy and as soon as we entered his taxi, it seemed he was keen to speak.

As before, the opening gambit for a taxi driver’s conversation is ‘Traffic’.

’Traffic’, he says.

‘Traffic full,’ I say, a phrase I had learnt from a previous taxi driver…. Then the fun starts.

‘Traffic Problem’, he says.

‘Yeah’.

‘Bad traffic problem. Mumbai Traffic Problem’.

‘Yeah, bad this time of night’

‘Indian problem’.

‘Much Indian problem’ he continues.

We continue to move slowly in the traffic, the rain making the journey even slower.

‘Where you from sir?’

‘England’.

‘Ha! England problem.’

At this point I can hear the boys starting to laugh in the back seats.

‘England politic problem?’

‘Yeah’ I reply thinking where is this conversation going? But by now this guy has put a smile on my face.

‘England profit problem?’

‘Yeah I suppose so.’

‘India profit problem and India politic problem’

We move slowly on; we see a policeman trying to keep the traffic moving.

‘Police problem’ he says…

We can’t help but laugh.

‘Street problem.’

‘People Problem.’

At this point, a van passes us in the slow traffic, and some young guys realising we are foreigners, poke their heads out of their vehicle’s window and, in a friendly manner they shout out:

‘Where you from?’

‘England’, I reply.

‘Youth problem’, the taxi drivers says.

Then the van just by chance back firers. We all laugh. The boys are now laughing so loudly, the guys in the van, me and the taxi driver all join in, and we are all laughing.

‘Car problem’.

‘Yeah’.

The van backfires once more.

‘Bomb problem,’ the driver says solemnly.

After a few minutes of no more problems, the conversation slows down. I am now thinking we certainly have a few problems, and the driver’s vocabulary as moved from ‘profit problem’ to ‘bomb problems’. So I wonder whether he can he hold a conversation without using the word ‘Problem’

We drive through a really busy area; this is the time to see if he really does understand.

‘Sir, where are we?’ I say.

‘India’ He replies.

So at this point I realise I can’t continue a conversation during this journey, without anymore ‘Problems!’

Wheel Off

Twice a week I have to get a rickshaw to Michelle’s school to pick the boys up, and then get a taxi to their football training.

On this occasion, I walked out of our apartment to the busy road, this is the best place to flag down a rickshaw to make the 20 minute journey to school. We had just come back from a Christmas holiday in Sri Lanka, so this was the first time I have had to get a rickshaw in two weeks. I realised after approaching the first rickshaw that he didn’t understand where I wanted to go. This has happened on many occasions, and I find myself changing my accent to be understood. So another rickshaw approached; I repeated my destination this time with what I think is an Indian accent, again I am not understood. Two more rickshaws join and they all look at each other, not knowing where I want to go. It seems being away from India for two weeks has killed my Indian accent altogether. I have had 4 rickshaw refusals but I keep walking, hoping my accent will improve and hoping soon someone will understand where I want to go.

I approach a line of rickshaws where the drivers are either sleeping or playing cards, and once you reach this part of the main road, you have less chance of getting a ride.

I kept trying to say where I wanted to go, but no luck. Two more drivers simply don’t understand me, or don’t want to understand me. I have now been trying to get a ride for 15 minutes, and I am thinking that I am going to be late for the boys that are waiting for me. I think one more try and I will have to phone Michelle and say I have forgotten how to pronounce the area where your school is.

Then one cheeky, dirty looking driver realises that I am struggling, and see this as his way of earning a few more rupees. I am aware of this; I feel like an injured wilder beast just about to be eaten by a lion, knowing I have no way out of this desperate situation. He doubles the price of the journey and says ‘no meter’; this is illegal, he knows it and I know it.

But he has seen me struggle and is going in for the kill.

I agree his rate, knowing I am going to be eaten alive, so I shout at his offer with disgust, but I still enter his domain, and get into the back of the rickshaw. But I don’t feel good, and I am still agreeing his price as he drives away. He is obviously saying in Hindi, ‘take it or leave it’. I am thinking ‘I am late, I need to get to the school’ so I am still fighting my last remaining part of dignity.

He drives, mumbling and me arguing, and this point, I hear the siren of an ambulance just about to pass us. He pulls over to let the ambulance go by.  Well that’s what I think he was doing. At this point he then starts moving the steering wheel back and forward, swerving all over the road, He is now shouting; I am thinking it will take more than that to scare me. I shout back, if it is a problem and we can’t agree a fare, maybe I can get out, and you can wait for your next passing wilder beast. He is still shouting, and so am I, no fare is worth this. I say forget it, you don’t need to scare me into paying your overpriced fare, I will just be late.

However he stills continues with the shouting and swerving of the steering wheel. He gets nearer the side of the road. I am thinking this guy is mad, no argument can be worth this. I am thinking about planning my escape route, one more last kick to get away from this lion. I think about jumping out of the moving rickshaw, then all of a sudden the rickshaw stops.

This is my time to get out and run to the plains while I have the chance. I get out of the rickshaw, waiting for my last fight with the driver.

All of a sudden, the rickshaw collapses and the front wheel falls off, the lion is beaten. There is a god!

Another rickshaw approaches. I seize my chance of getting away. This time I concentrate before I speak. My accent has returned, the new driver understands me perfectly. The meter is switched on, and off we go. I look back over my shoulder and I see the lion holding a spanner looking towards the heavens for an answer.

 

Wheel Off

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fancy A Massage?

Again this experience happened after the boys’ football training. We got a taxi from our usual place and we have realised that if we walk 5 minutes down to the highway, it can save us 30 minutes of our journey, because all the taxi drivers that are not near the highway will go the slower, longer way to collect more fare.

So we enter the taxi, me in the front, the two boys in the back. This driver starts to speak as soon as we get in, so we know this is not going to be a quiet ride. He asks where we have come from; we tell him the football training school up the road. He asks straight away, ‘why have you walked down here?’ We explain we want to go straight onto the highway as it is quicker and cheaper. He says that it is wrong and wants to drive us back to the training ground and use the slower more expensive route. We all say ‘no highway!’ He is not happy. He says we are lucky to get a fare this way; we reply that we do it every week, and that he was the first driver ever to mention that there is a problem.

He can’t believe that we have used our experience to save money and time in the taxi world. He is a bit surprised how clued up we are. When we entered his taxi, he saw white foreigners that he thought would be easy to get more money from. He now knows that perhaps by picking us up it was not a good move. The meter is on, and he says ‘can he now turn it off, it’s a long way to go to where we want to go and he might not get a fare back’.

‘No’, we all say.

‘Where you from sir?’

‘England’

‘You must have lots of money’

‘No, why?’

‘I have American friends that pay me in dollars, do you have dollars?’

‘No, sorry only rupees, and I have no money’

‘You must be rich, living in England’

‘No, I am poor, that’s why I live in India’

By this time the boys have started to laugh in the back of the car again. This guy is after the money, anyway he can get it. What’s funny he is not in the least embarrassed for asking for it.

‘How is my driving sir…good?’

‘I suppose so’

‘If driving good, you need to give me a tip’

‘If your driving was good you might have got a tip, but the fact you have asked for one means I will probably not give you a tip.’

‘Don’t be like that sir, driving good? I have been driving for many years’

We continue to follow our route, he asks what I do. I say I am a teacher and all us teachers are all poor, but he is not buying that one.

‘Driving good?’ he says…

Just as he is looking in my eye, wanting to get personal, thinking this is the only way I am going to get more money from these foreigners, he loses concentration and nearly hits the car in front.

‘Driving not good’ I say.

‘Sorry, sir.’

‘You have family?’ I say.

‘Yes one daughter, she is 13’

‘Does she go to school?’

‘Yes, sir’

‘Do you pay for that, sir?’

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘You must have lots of money then sir, you must be rich so I won’t have to pay you all the fare?’ I say with a smile.

He looks at me, and goes quiet. He is now thinking I have tried the friendly approach and the good driving approach. How possibly could I get more money from these English?

We are nearing home, and he says.

‘Do you want a driver, back home in England?’

‘No.’

‘Why, I could be your driver’

‘No, we don’t have drivers back in England, we drive ourselves’

‘Really, no drivers?’

‘Only the Queen has a driver.’

‘I could be your cleaner, back in England.’

‘No we don’t have cleaners, I clean myself, I am very poor.’

I am thinking that he has tried really hard, and there can’t be many tools left in his bag to help him get more money from this fare.  But I was wrong.

‘I am a driver, but also I am a masseur.’

‘Really’ I say, ‘no, surely not’.

‘I have very good hands’

At this point he lets go of the steering wheel with one hand and massages my hand, then arm.

I can help but laugh, the boys are in stitches in the back.

I encourage him.

‘That’s really good’ I say.

That’s all he needs – he lets go of the steering wheel and with both hands goes for my shoulders and then the head.

‘Please watch the road’ I squirm.

He continues.

‘Good driving and good massaging means good tip?’

I was thinking exactly what he had just said, but he had no embarrassment in saying it. This guy had tried everything to get his tip.

So when we stopped the tip was given, he smiled and was a bit disappointed.

‘Did you tip him dad?’ Andrew asked

‘Yes, I did. But not as much as he wanted. Why? Did you think his massage was worth more?’

 

Haircut

After the start of festival of Ganesha, the elephant god when we arrived, now it was the end. A real special day, especially here in Mumbai. All the gods in the different communities are gathered, by truck, cart, lorry or any form of transport and transported to the river or the sea. There, they are released into the water. From where we are staying, the manmade god is put onto a cart and then the people walk behind the cart all the way to the sea.

 

 

Sounds good. I am quite interested in joining in such a celebration. I enquiry and find out that the procession leaves at 1.00am and takes 2 hours to reach the sea.  At this point, I thought that maybe this was not a good idea. I will give this some thought and see how I feel later.

Michelle is working all day on the computer, so I decide to take the boys to Ghandi Maiden for a run, where they join the locals for a game of football. We get back and decide it time to have our hair cut.

I have located the shop, it’s a ten minute walk from the hotel. I know where it is.  First you have to pass the umbrella man, where we bought umbrellas, then pass the banana man, where we buy bananas. You get the idea, then the apple man, and right next to the beer shop and carry on, well after the guy selling samosas on the street corner.

Since finding the barbers I have seen lots of people just having their hair cut or being shaved in the street, usually under a tree to provide the shade.

But my barbers is a tiny room, right on the road, enough room for 3 chairs squashed together. On the road there is a bench, where the two boys and I sit waiting our turn. Today there are only two barbers; I am guessing the other chair is sometimes occupied if a third barber makes it to work.

We all watch, to see if this experience is going to be a good one. Both the barbers finish at the same time, so there is no argument between the boys who will be the guinea pig. They both climb up into the chairs at the same time, looking a bit nervous. I am thinking if their haircuts are so bad, I will just chuck in the ‘I am not well card’, and scarper.

Hindi music is coming from a phone, where the barber as one eye on a movie, the other eye on Theo’s head. The scalping begins.  The clippers are used with no adjustment, just very short. Andrew’s barber is following the same process.  Andrew tries to explain the style he wants and adds ‘not too short’. After about 4 minutes, they are both finished, the scalped sheep get down from the chair, neither of them looking too confident. In fact they both look pretty terrible! I am thinking that Theo looks the worse, the character Blackadder comes to mind. However after they both descend from the chairs, they are smiling, I am thinking I wouldn’t be smiling with a haircut that bad. But then I realise what they are smiling about.

‘Dad, your turn!’

As luck would have it, I was hoping I would get Andrew’s barber, as he was the better of the two options. But he walks out of the shop and I am left with Theo’s chopper.

No words are passed baring any smile. No instruction as to what sort of haircut I require.  There is only one style – short. Blackadder II is coming up. I try to rescue the situation before it begins and gesture the action of scissors.  This works and the clippers are placed next to the mobile phone, still playing the Hindi film. The barber is still watching the film, this time more intensely, more loud music coming from the device resting on its side. The romance in the film is hitting its climate, I am pooing myself.

He starts to cut, hair flying in all directions, maybe not Blackadder, maybe ‘Edward Scissorhands’. The boys are trying not to laugh, as they look at my worried face. A rest bit in this 4 minutes of madness, the chai wallah enters the room.

‘Chai’ he says.

The barber just nods and I am given a cup also. He stops to drink and indicates I should drink also; so I do.

He relaxes with this tea in one hand, and for a few minutes, he can give his whole concentration to the film. I drink the tea, pull back the cloth that is covering my clothes and drink joining him, both looking at the film. The only difference is I have only one side of my haircut complete, the boys laugh. I taste the tea, well I wish I could taste the tea.  All I can taste is condensed milk and sugar. Really, I want to spit it out, but I smile, nodding, suggesting it is good, further suggesting a thanks. I have no choice – I am in this barber’s domain, and whatever he says goes, or I leave with half a haircut.

Break over, back on the shears. I am looking in the mirror at myself thinking ‘please stop now’, but he continues. Clippers or not, there is no way I am leaving this chair with any hair remaining on my head.

Then he stops. I think that wasn’t too bad, the cloth is removed. I am just about to make my get away when he pins me down, with his palms of his hands on top my head. He presses down on the top of my head, as if to say, ‘you are going nowhere, I am not finished with you yet’.

I am thinking ‘what’s happening? then he starts. It seems I am not only going to get scalped, but I am going to get beaten up too! This is an Indian head massage, I think. My head is moved in all sorts of directions and slapped then he moves on to the side of my face. The boys can’t restrain themselves any longer and both burst out laughing. This, in fact, gives the mad barber more fuel and more energy to continue. Whacking my head in all directions, then lastly the shoulders. I feel that at any moment, I could pass out.

I get up out of the chair a beaten man, my legs fail me and Andrew saves me from the embarrassment of falling over into the street. I don’t know if I have had a good haircut or not; it has been so messed up by the massage. Anyway, I am not sure I care what I look like, it’s what I have just been through that is the only thing of concern.

‘Are you alright Dad?’

‘Never felt better,’ I reply.

The barber smiles, ‘see you again’, he is thinking. I am thinking ‘have I really got to walk back to the hotel from here? It’s a 10 minute walk’.

My Barber, Clippers or Scissors?

 

I pay him, he smiles again, all that for 50 pence – I am not sure if it was worth it or not.

We return to the hotel, my head is still spinning. Also my eyebrows are stinging. I think no more about it.

I rest for a bit, not feeling 100%, Michelle comes back from work.

‘How was the barbers? What the hell’s happened to you?’ she says.

I get up from the bed.

‘What?’

‘Have you been burnt?’

‘What are you talking about,’ I reply.

‘Your eyebrows are bright red, both of them. What has happened?’

I quickly go to the mirror, I have been scared; massive red marks are throbbing above both of my eyebrows.

The boys are falling about laughing, I am not finding the funny side of this, and still feeling a bit dazed.

‘It must have been the head massage,’ the boys say.

‘What head massage?’ Michelle says.

They all laugh.

Later on I could see the funny side to this situation. But not now. Since this minor incident I have been in a lot more stressful situations. But now after this the heat, the hotel living and having been not on my own for weeks, I feel this sudden eager to get away.

‘Where you going? Come on we were only joking’ Michelle says.

I reply ‘I need some time on my own, and to rest my burnt eyebrows’

I leave the room, I am thinking great I have a chance the first time in a month to spend some time by myself, in a bar.

I walk down to the bar of the hotel. I am thinking this is a sad show. I have been in this hotel for a month and I have not once made it to the bar, and not once on my own, or with company. I have, however, been drinking most night, but that’s in the restaurant with dinner.

So at last, in the bar, alone, burnt eyebrows or not. To break the duck; my mates would be disgusted to think it has taken me this long to have a beer in the bar.

I have walked passed the bar at least twice a day for a month, I know where it is. Michelle has been playing it down since I arrived, saying she has only been in there once and it wasn’t very good, the service was poor and the music was too loud.

But this was my moment, the bar was my mission.

I get the lift down the stairs and walk to the bar, I push the door. It’s locked. I look inside, it’s dark. I try again, no luck the bar is closed, and it’s 6.00PM. ‘That’s funny’, I think, ‘oh well it must be maintenance’; it’s always maintenance when something is not working over here.

I think no bar, well I will make the most of the situation, and if the bar isn’t open, at least I can get a beer in the restaurant, and for the first time, alone.

I enter the restaurant, the staff say ‘hello’ and are a bit surprised to see me alone and with no family on toe.

‘Alone sir’

‘Yes it’s good’ I reply.

I sit down at our usual table, the menu is placed in front of me.

‘I only want a drink; a Kingfisher.’

I wish!

 

 

‘No sir’

‘Pardon?’

‘It’s a special day today sir, it is the day that all the man-made Ganeshas are transported to the sea’

‘Yes I know,’ I reply

‘Sir, today is a special day, and it’s a dry day.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Today, no alcohol is served anywhere in any shop, bar or restaurant, in Mumbai, as a sign of respect to the festival’

 

OH NO!

 

 

Maybe I will join the precession to transport the Ganeshas to the sea at 1.00am after all!