Read our volunteers Shirley Redpath’s very candid view of her experience in Southern India’s Kerala. This is the second part of her journal blog (Day 4 to 8). Do read the first part of her journal on our earlier blog entries (Day 1 to 3) before you proceed to read this. This is better than watching an episode of the BBC’s “Real Marigold Hotel” !

Journal Diary Part 1(Day 1-3) is herehttps://volunteeringjourneys.com/yoga-volunteering-volunteer-journal/

Day four– the projects get into full swing

I woke up this morning with a stuffy headache, the product of hot, airless sleeping conditions and a lack of caffeine – all this clean living is having an effect!  This will be our second day of early morning yoga and already I find it difficult to get moving.  Halfway through the class, though, I realise that the sun is shining, the millions of birds in the canopy are calling and my headache is lifting.   As we all leave to start the day our thoroughly modern yogi mounts a rather muscular looking moped and roars off down the road.  Time for a shower.

Back at the House Midhu has brought her son who bounces through the hallways offering each of us wrapped sweets in honour of his ninth birthday today.  They are so giving, these people.

Today, three of us again work with the morning women’s group (more glitter and hats) but it is apparent that there are too many volunteers for the number of women showing up.  It is also clear that there are two distinct approaches to teaching English: two of us take a more structured, ‘academic’ approach, while one is of the classic English woman abroad type – speak Pidgeon English loudly with silly games etc.  In afternoon, she reverts to the children’s programme and thrives, while we scholarly types work our way through verb tenses and a discussion of what life is like where we come from.  The women appear to enjoy the class, but then they are far too polite to indicate otherwise.

We get back to the House to find one of the volunteers busy on the roof terrace designing a paper cup bell that she wants the children’s group to make and decorate the following morning.  After it takes her twenty minutes to fashion the bell – complete with a button for a ringer – she realises it will be too finicky for the kids to make their own, so she decides to pre-make the bells and have the children decorate them.  Problem is, she needs forty bells, so we all get stuck in to help her and the job is done within the hour.

We decided to walk up to the harbour area in search of dinner that evening and were rewarded with a number of art galleries to view along the way.  We have been very fortunate that our visit to Fort Kochi coincides with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a festival of international modern art that is gaining recognition and respect worldwide.  I fell asleep that night to the sounds of the city settling down around us – the occasional moped speeding home, and the occasional guard dog doing his job.

Day five – Keralan cooking

The yogi this morning has us practice a breathing technique that involves letting out an explosive ‘huh’ sound by pushing air out from the diaphragm.  When we do it on the roof terrace we find that the neighbourhood dogs become aroused and start responding to us, adding amusingly to the dawn chorus already in full swing.

We are having a Christmas celebration with the women’s programme today.  This has been somewhat of a moveable feast; the original plan was for it to be held on Friday, then Thursday and now Wednesday.  The apparent lack of any organisation is not a programme fault, but rather Geetha’s tireless efforts to find solutions that will meet the needs of all concerned.  She is everywhere, listening to everyone and trying out ideas on the fly to see if they work.  The change in dates is due to one or two volunteers having made weekend plans that involve leaving early and she wants to make sure everyone can be present.  We are all in a state of not knowing exactly what is happening but trusting implicitly that Geetha will pull it out of a hat.  She looks exhausted at times but shows up again the next morning with a spring in her step.

The women in the project are so supportive and willing to go along with everything.  Our craft-loving volunteer got them making paper chains and Christmas trees (that glitter again).  Later, we had a lively discussion about what foods they make at home for Christmas and then we all had cake and soft drinks.  A couple of the women had their toddlers with them, dressed in the most adorable Christmas costumes.  Several of the women got up and sang for us, beautiful, haunting songs.  The volunteers joined together and offered a couple of Christmas carols.

That evening, Geetha gave us a lesson in cooking Keralan food.  She and Midhu had done a whip round earlier in the day to collect funds for the ingredients and they laid in a beautiful array of fish, prawns and several vegetables, including something called bitter gourd.  We all stood around the small kitchen while Geetha concocted a feast, talking us through the recipes as she cooked.  We dutifully wrote down what we were told but it soon became apparent that most Keralan dishes start the same way: combine lots of chilli powder, turmeric and salt to make a paste in which to marinate your fish, prawns, cauliflower, bitter gourd, mango – whatever.  Coconut is used a lot, in all its forms: oil for frying, milk for moistening and flavouring, and flesh for texture and flavour.  Many fish dishes are fried; vegetables are often done in a soupy sauce.  The bitter gourd, which has to be cooked for a long time to eliminate any bitterness, came out less soupy and actually quite tasty.  We plated up and set the dishes out on the roof terrace dining table, and Geetha left us to enjoy.  It was a banquet that brought tears to my eyes, but in this case it was the extreme heat of the chilli powder rather than appreciation for Geetha’s heroic efforts that had that effect!

Day six – shopper beware

Some nights the dogs are restless, and we hear them barking at random intervals throughout the hours of darkness.  If you happen to be on the edge of sleep at around 5:30 in the morning, you begin to hear the first sounds of the city waking up: the muezzins intoning the call to prayer.  It is a haunting sound, one of the most evocative of being in an exotic location.  Each mosque has its own muezzin and they don’t all start at exactly the same time, so as you listen you hear new ones joining in the cross-city choir, each from a different direction.  As the sound dies away, you are aware of the rumble of mopeds and motorbikes starting up and moving through the streets.  The birds join in too – mostly crows, but some slightly more melodic varieties, and there are hundreds of them.  It is a rising wave of sound that becomes the permanent background to everything you do throughout the day until the last call to prayer in the evening, the final rustling of the birds and the occasional stray moped on its way home.  At night, the city is amazingly quiet.

We do our yoga this morning a bit reluctantly – a few aching muscles and stiff joints, but these are soon stretched out and we are again grateful that we went.  Geetha changed our rota a bit so we only had two volunteers working with the women in the morning; the third one took the afternoon session on her own.   Since I was working the morning session I had the afternoon free to do some shopping.

If you are not careful, shopping becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.  The first challenge for some is the sense of obligation to take back presents for loved ones left behind; one volunteer had purchased over a dozen gifts that I knew of and was actually contemplating using a courier service to ship things home and save on her baggage allowance.  The second challenge is to remember that what seems a wonderful purchase when you are living within the magic of a foreign environment will often not look as well back home; another volunteer succumbed to the beauty of Indian clothing and had a full salwar kameez made in a lovely silk material at a cost of over £60.  It looked fabulous on her on the streets of Fort Kochi but I’m certain that back home in the industrial heartland of Germany it may not come out of the closet.

Still, the extreme heat and the low cost of the clothing combined to encourage me to purchase several pairs of lightweight trousers and a couple of cotton tops – I’m hoping I will get away with wearing them at home, but if not they may stay in the back of the closet waiting for me to return to India.

It is difficult to know where to purchase items; the programme directors encouraged us to shop only in the ‘government stores’, where admittedly the quality was better but the prices were higher and the pressure to purchase was just as great as in the more ‘touristy’ shops.  Our tuk-tuk drivers were no help – they occasionally asked us to just stop in a shop and look around – no purchase necessary – on the basis that they would get petrol vouchers for bringing foreigners to the shop.  If we purchased anything, they also got some rice.

However, you want to bring home something tangible to remind you of your trip, so risks have to be taken.  In the end, I purchased a lovely stick-figure drawing on silk, hand painted by the women of a region called Orissa.  I had seen a similar painting and fallen in love with it a couple of years ago here in the UK so was happy to acquire one as part of my journey.  I also bought a lovely pendent with a solid silver leaf motif holding a suspended fire moonstone in a tear drop shape.  I purchased from a small shop on the fringes of the ‘toursity’ area but I liked and trusted the retailer – you have to go with your instincts.

That evening we were in slightly celebratory mood so we wandered down towards the beach area in search of a hotel that might serve us a glass of wine.  Kerala is essentially a dry region, although you can find alcohol if you look.  For us, the place to go was the upmarket hotels in the ‘old town’ where you could have a glass of beer or wine for a not unreasonable price.  If you want to take alcohol home you need to go to a toddy shop, so called because the local hooch is a low alcohol distillation of the sap of coconut palm trees called toddy.  It is not easy to make a purchase in one of these establishments; one of the volunteers wanted to buy a bottle of wine for Christmas Eve, but she came back shaking from the experience.  Midhu, our House manager, refused to go anywhere near the shop in case she was spotted and word got back to her family, so it was down to the tuk-tuk driver to stand in.  Apparently you write down what you want to purchase and present it to the toddy shop staff along with personal identification – the state keeps track of who is buying the hooch in a bid to cut down on alcohol abuse.  For the most part it seems to work – we never saw evidence of intoxication and most days you never noticed the toddy shops.  Around Christmas and New Year, however, the queues were enormous.

Day seven – partying with the children

Today is the children’s Christmas Party at the school.  Geetha has been working so hard to make this a success and she is so excited that the day is finally here.  We have all been wrapping presents on the roof terrace and Geetha has organised cake for the children.

Everyone is coming; there is no women’s project meeting so we are all available to go to the school.  Raj has agreed to leave the hospital early and come straight over to join us as soon as he can.  Geetha and her assistants, Midhu and Lakshmi, all dress up in beautiful saris; Geetha even brings her daughter, who is home on holidays from her studies to be an architect.

We arrive to find the place in a high state of excitement.  Children of all ages are there, along with their teachers and our programme staff.  We, apparently, are guests of honour.  The children, all dressed in their finest outfits,  flock around us for photo opportunities and then are settled at the front of the room where one by one or in groups they get up on the small stage to perform a song or dance.  The dances are amazingly intricate in the number of steps and graceful movements involved, yet even the smallest child seems to know many of them off by heart.  The volunteers are all totally engaged with their mobile phones taking photos and videos.

Eventually, the volunteers are asked to line up across the stage where we hand out the gifts; there are different ones for each age group, as well as the teaching staff.  Everyone is most appreciative and at the end, we all have a group sing along and dance on the stage.  The children are flying on sugar highs by this time, so there is no hope of regaining any sense of order.

Afterwards, we discover that the school has laid on lunch for the volunteers.  We are moved into a neighbouring room where we are served rice, several curries and poppadums, which I later discover have all been cooked on a single burner attached to a gas bottle and sitting on the floor of the kitchen.  Amazing.

In the afternoon, two of us go to have our second Ayurvedic massages, this time at a centre about half a mile away.  The town is a centre for Ayurvedic treatment and study so there are plenty to chose from but ironically I have the same therapist that I had at the first place.  They seem to freelance and turn up wherever there is a booking that fits with their schedule.  The treatment room at the second place is not as comfortable as the first one but the massage lasts 15 minutes longer for the same price.

Ayurvedic massage involves a lot of oil – in its true form the oil is poured all over your body.  Most places now just slather it on liberally, but in either case, you need to remove some of it before you can safely get dressed after your massage.  With both of my treatments this was accomplished by the therapist standing me, buck naked, in an adjoining shower room where she soaped and scrubbed me all over and then poured warm water by the bucketful over my head to rinse it off (showers in this part of the world only deliver cold water).  It is an oddly comforting if a bit disconcerting feeling to be bathed like a child when in one’s sixth decade of life.

We both enjoyed our treatments and came out to the front lobby in a state of total relaxation but were distracted from our rest period by the sound of music and drumming.  We rushed out to find ourselves in the middle of a Flash Mob that had been dancing its way around the centre of Fort Kochi.  This town seems to love to celebrate.

Written by Shirley Redpath 

Christmas doing Yoga and Volunteering in Kerala

17th December – 2nd January