Sunday, 11 December 2011

Goodbye Koraput


I am sitting in a train on my way to Amritsar and the goodbyes we said to what became our home for three months seem far away. Yet it has only been a week since we got those trains on our 45-hour journey to Delhi. Three months have gone fast and it really does not seem like a long time to accomplish change. Change needs behavioural modification and that takes time. When they asked us at our debrief in Delhi “what would you do differently if you were to improve the ICS programme?” I certainly suggested extending the placement. It took us at least a month to get used to the place we were working at, learning about their way of doing things and about how we could fit in. We then finally started working on our projects and suddenly we had to go feeling like we could have done so much more, had we had the time… It really makes me think about those gap year volunteering opportunities that offer one or two weeks placements. What can be accomplished in such a short time frame? Is it worth it? If I was to go volunteering again, I certainly would not go for less than six months. But is there really a point to international volunteering? Three strangers arrived in a village in rural India feeling lost and without any knowledge of the local language. What could three young girls do to help in such a foreign environment? The language barrier seemed like a solid brick wall that had to be overcome if we wanted to do anything. We could not even remember peoples’ names. How were we supposed to work? Everyone in the NGO was really welcoming and nice yet they were stuck in their own jobs and did not know where we should fit in. Also, what skills did we have that could aid in improving peoples’ lives? It seemed like none. Our first field trip also felt like we were VIP tourists been shown around the village and taken pictures off whilst we “gave out” mosquito nets to the poor villagers. But that was not what we signed off to do, right? We wanted to actually help. Bring about change and share skills.

Don’t get me wrong though. If I were to do it again, I would not change anything. On a personal level, it has been the most rewarding experience. I have pushed my boundaries, lived in a completely foreign environment and surrounded by complete strangers that ultimately became my friends. I have seen things that have been eye-opening. I never would have thought that being surrounded by poverty and misery could be so enriching. In fact, the people that we worked with were so welcoming and hospitable. When we went to the villages they would always offer us food and welcome us with a smile and a thank you.

My point is that international volunteering was frustrating for 80% of the time. When we were trying to fit in and couldn’t. When we were pushing and pushing to get our projects done. When I worked hard to finish a 26-page project that should improve the life of a whole village and the feedback I got was “mmh yes… it’s really heavy… it will take me a week to read it”. So, what was the point of me working so hard to create a strategy, write up a proposal or any of the other documents I did if no one was even going to read it? Was there a point at all? Should we just have stayed at home? Were we a burden to the organisation with our different way of doing things? It certainly felt like that many times.

And to top it up, we found out about the general opinion on NGOs in India. There is a kind of complacent indignation towards the NGO sector. Similar to what people think about the government. They steal money yet sometimes they work well and help people. It’s just how it is… But if you want to make money, surely you would just start up a business or work in a bank? People that want to work in the NGO sector certainly want to devote themselves to servicing others. It is tough work and not so (economically) rewarding. So I thought... Yet my co-worker’s response left me speechless “In business you risk your own money. In the NGO sector you just play with donors’ money and profit from it!” It’s an arbitrator’s paradise. Risk-free investments with high returns. Great. That's real life development right there!




Nonetheless I don’t want to give a completely black picture. My vision has just become more real. Before, I probably idealised the NGO sector thinking that everyone that wants to work in this area must be a good person willing to take sacrifices for the sake of peoples’ wellbeing. Yet that is just an unreal vie en rose. As I said before, 80% of the time it is frustrating. The bureaucracy, the slowness and inefficiencies, the corruption, the interests of politicians and the difficulty to overcome these challenges in a completely alien environment. However, when you do manage to improve one person’s life, by something you saw and they didn’t or by a skill that you could bring or a resource you added, it is all worth it. One of my fondest memories of these three months was when we went to a village in Kundra. SOVA has been working with them for 5 years now and they have accomplished a lot. Especially as our colleagues in charge of these projects are from Kundra themselves so they have a special relationship with the area. We were welcomed with smiles, blessings and cooperation. They proudly showed us all the improvements that had come about since SOVA arrived at the village and we ended up dancing the local tribal dance dhimsa together. Time flew and when we left the village I could not erase my smile from my face. And That makes it all worth it.  The paperwork and frustration that come with it for 80% of the time are quickly then forgotten.

A woman in rural India




I have been thinking a lot about the situation of women in a patriarchal society such as India. My experiences in Koraput have really made me value the sense of equality that women enjoy in Western societies. I was born into a family and a society that does not undermine women and promotes equal opportunities. In fact, I used to get annoyed at those convinced feminist activists who are constantly on the lookout to start a discussion in order to defend women’s rights and make a point of the injustices that women have to continually face. I just took it for granted. We are the same as men and don’t have to constantly be shouting it out. Doesn’t this show that we are different if we have to constantly fight for rights that we are obviously entitled to? This is what I used to think and it probably still applies to my Western perspective. I never had to change my behaviour or ambitions because of being a woman so I never understood why so many women had to constantly emphasise the differences and the need for a fight. We are different, men and women, but that does not mean we are not entitled to the same rights and liberties.

I think that three months in rural India have significantly changed my vision. For the first time in my life I was made aware of the limitations that come along with my gender (according to the society I was living in!). Not only did we have to cover ourselves up at 30 degrees when men ran around in shorts and tank tops, the patriarchal governance directly affected my life.  I can understand the covering up as a sign of respect, especially if we consider the key role that religion plays in society. But no one would rent out a room or apartment to three single women because, why would girls live alone?  They are to be living with their families or husbands. Anything else is inappropriate and wrong. Luckily, after three weeks, we managed to get a house through our boss’s father in law. Luckily, we thought… He imposed a curfew at 8pm. This was such an unusual limitation for me since I have been allowed to come home at whatever time I found appropriate since I turned 16. If we weren’t at home by 7.30pm he would be calling us to remind us that we had to rush home. We then were never allowed to walk alone anywhere and should always avoid the dark. What I found worse was the fact that I had to change my behaviour to the point that I found my personality constrained. I am naturally a friendly person and more than that I am curious. So, when people came up to us asking where we where from, what we were doing in India and just generally greeted us, I would always respond and hopefully engage in a conversation to find out about them. I was later told I should avoid any conversations with men from the age of 14 to 90. Look down when they address you and only talk to children and women. Especially as they consider Western girls to be “less conservative” because of the reputation we earned in India during the 60s and 70s. All the hippies that arrived then preaching free love and engaging in open sexual relationships left a legacy. Western films and programmes in which sex is openly exposed also aid in completing this vision of how loose foreign girls apparently are. Consequently, no looking at men or being friendly to anyone. Not even married men as we later found out that adultery, although regarded as an outrageous immorality, was quite present. No one talks about it but everyone knows it happens. At first I thought they were overreacting and I could still be nice to people irrespective of their sex. However, a week before leaving Koraput we found a message on the outside wall of our house: “Can I do sex to you? You sexy dolls!” Hilarious for us but also creepy when Ashley found a boy in her room whilst having a nap. One could say (and I am sure the traditional girls in our office would say it) that we encouraged it by being friendly or not behaving appropriately. The point is that we did not break the rules at any point but because people expected foreign girls to be more open, go out clubbing and engage in relationships before marriage, there was nothing we could do. The preconceptions were so strong that nothing we could do would change their minds.

I had heard a lot about the matriarchs within the tribal population so I thought that it would at least be different there. What I discovered was that women were perceived as the strong pillars of their communities and hence were those who took the burden of the villages’ responsibilities. Not only did they have to work in the construction of roads and houses, farm the land and collect firewood, they also had to complete all the household chores, cook, clean and look after the children. In fact, most times the men in the villages were drunk and sitting around. So I guess that is what they call a matriarchal society. So much for gender equality…

Finally just say that I am very grateful to Simone de Beauvoir and her feminist counterparts.  Their fight made it possible for me to be born to a society in which I take it equal rights for granted. A world that made me believe that those that are continually asserting gender equality are out of line and exaggerating. For they are not. And we should learn from this to contribute a little to the consciousness of rural women in India because the Status Quo must not remain so.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Majhiguda


Majhiguda is my favourite village. I have been there three times now and enjoyed it every time. It is the village we selected to create a livelihood strategy plan as it is struggling a lot. After the Kolab Dam was built in 1984, 18 families had to leave their fertile land to settle here. Majhi means "middle" in Oriya and duga "village". They chose this name because it is basically situated between two villages and surrounded by mountains. You can only access it through a mud path that floods during monsoon and leaves the 37 families that now live in the community completely isolated. On top of that, the government compensation schemes that promised monetary rewards and irrigated land were never delivered. In fact, from the  Rs40,000 (580€) that each household was entitled to, they received about half. Why? Because the system was so well organised that it was given out in cheques (to illiterate tribal families!). They did not know anything about banks, let alone how to cash a cheque. Middlemen came to their help by cashing their cheques and keeping half of their compensation (which was not much in the first place if you take in consideration that they had to leave their habitat, livelihood and the lifestyle they had led for thousands of years). Thanks Mr Middleman. So kind of you to help. Furthermore, the land around the village is steep and dry with no irrigation facilities. Great conditions for agriculture. All in all, unfulfilled promises and limited opportunities.

Since Majhiguda was created in 1984, it has almost doubled its size. Most families live of farming but as I said, the conditions are very difficult and they rely on the monsoon for irrigation. This means they have to work on construction sites, building roads and basically anything that adds a little to their anaemic income. They struggle. Yet they are kind, welcoming, smiley and caring. All families look after each other and the community spirit is outstanding. The children are the best. I have discovered a slight obsession with taking pictures of kids and trying to speak to them. I often fail at the second yet they appreciate the effort. As you can see from the pictures, they love being in photographs, too. 





SOVA has been working with Majhiguda for over 5 years now. They have established a village development committee that is literate and is now aware of government schemes and services and how to claim them. For our livelihood plan, we used PRA tools (Participatory Rural Appraisal) to collect the data. Basically, we mapped out all the households in the village to understand who lives where and how (tin/asbestos/thatched roofs, electricity access, etc). We also created a resource map that pictures the territory around Majhiguda. This helps in identifying the available resources such as water for irrigation, land that can be used for agriculture, etc. Then we drew up a mobility diagram (to see how far institutions such as schools and hospitals are), a seasonal calendar (to identify when people suffer more hardship, unemployment, diseases...) and, most importantly, focus group discussions. We held two, one only-female and a mixed one in which basically men were the only speakers. Trying to identify gender issues is quite difficult. Although tribal people are apparently a matriarchal society, this only really applies to household issues. I had heard that women are the strong ones in their culture. They are the ones who build roads and houses, they travel miles to sell their goods in the markets and they look after the children and cook. So, it seemed right to say that matriarchs are prevalent. However, when we were doing the exercises, men dominated all of them. In fact, women did not really want to sit near us. When we asked the women about this, they did not really know what to say. It was normal. It is just the way it is. Men lead the village, drink and plan and women work and look after everyone else. Right. So fair. What I found more frustrating is that I was working with a male team from SOVA so I did not feel I could speak freely with them (due to the constant need of a translator). Nonetheless, it was really interesting working like this. Everyone in the village was involved as even children can help out and the results were similar to what you can get from a questionnaire or a survey.

The Plan is now finished and I will upload it for anyone who is interested. We have exactly two weeks left and I am experiencing a mix of emotions. Sadness because of leaving Koraput and leaving our  friends here and because the whole experience of tribal India and development has been incredible. At the same time I am so excited for my upcoming trip. I guess I just have to make the most of these two weeks! The yearly tribal festival, Parab, has started today. People from all over Koraput come to show their arts and crafts, singing and dancing and general fun. SOVA has three game stalls that will raise awareness on education rights and HIV/AIDS. Puppet shows, darts and prizes when you get the answer to HIV related questions. It sounds great. More on this on the next post!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Some thoughts on Marriage


Marriage plays a key role in India. Not only for young couples wishing to commit and create a family. Everyone is involved. Parents, grandparents, friends, neighbours and your whole community.

We are exposed to it on a daily basis. It is included in the standard set of questions we get from locals.

Where you come from? Why in Koraput? You speak Hindi? Are you married? Why not?

At first I found it strange. People do not understand why on earth single girls are walking around alone without their family or a husband.  I guess I am used to it now, as I have learned a lot about the Indian marriage apparatus.

Tribal girls get married when they are about 15-17 years old. Indian middle-income families marry their daughters at about my age, which is why it is such a strange thing that I am still single and without any wedding plans.

Who you marry and what type of wife you are will determine your reputation in your community. You have to be educated, cook well and meet many other requirements. Apparently, some communities choose their son’s wife based on the appearance of her feet! It is an ancient superstition but the shape of your feet does seemingly portray your personality. So, girls do not choose their husbands and neither do men. Their parents arrange it for them. Arranged marriages are common in India. In fact, love marriages are left to Bollywood films and legendary passionate stories of inter-caste affairs. People dream about it yet it belongs more to a fantasy world of emotions and adoration. In reality, love is quite low on the priorities’ list when choosing a husband. Firstly, he should belong to the same caste as you, then he should have a good, stable job and income. Next he should be kind and treat you well and the rest will work out. As my colleague Krishna said: “First marriage and then, love”.

Although India’s new generation has witnessed times of change and Western influence, the traditional strong family structure is dominant. Hollywood and Bollywood both sell a perfect product of flawless love relationships that lead to fulfilment in marriage. But it just makes me think; what happens next? In the West we believe in love as a precondition to even consider ringing the wedding bells. Yet, one in three marriages end up in divorce. Love and passion fade and the reality that follows is not the idyllic dream world we had envisioned on the ‘I do’ day.

I had a really interesting conversation with two of my workmates on the way back from a fieldtrip. They said it was much easier when marriage is arranged. It has to work out. There is no other choice. Consequently, love and affection evolve from routine instead of the Western version of love and passion sustaining a marriage forever. It is a more practical perspective. India is not really famous for divorces. They do not happen. It would not be acceptable in society and there is no real reason. It is all about expectations, right? When we get into a marriage we have high expectations: passion, love, affection, commitment and so on. When these are not met, we are disappointed and feel deflated. However, if you do not expect anything and just hope for the best, your level of disappointment will be much lower. Traditionally, Indian brides are not allowed to see their husbands until the wedding day. Nowadays things have changed thanks to mobile technology and the net but still, you would never see an unmarried couple walking or spending time together publicly. It would create an outrageous amount of rumours and gossip and ruin their reputation (especially the girl’s). Thus they have to make it work once the Brahmin has sealed the commitment.


What can we learn from this? Should we change our beliefs? It is a very practical, (unfortunately realistic) view of marriage and love. It actually separates marriage from love. It is a life seal for companionship and reproduction. Can we still believe in the ‘happily ever after’ that we have been made to believe (I blame Disney)? Or should we adopt a more pragmatic version? Is it possible to combine both versions?

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Home sweet Koraput


Life has changed a lot lately. Corey and Gina finished their two-year placement in Koraput and have now left to travel around Nepal and Thailand before returning home to the States. Annie has also departed to continue her work in Hyderabad. Consequently, our small group of expats has shrunk to a mere five people. However, we are bonding with the locals and enjoying the familiarity of Koraput. After a month and a half, I finally feel at home. We know where to buy our vegetables, fruit or milk, where we can get foreign goods such as exotic cereal boxes and Cadbury’s chocolate. Indian toilets are fabulous and the food does not upset our stomachs anymore. People greet us and recognise us around town and I feel safe and comfortable walking around. It is nice but also sad at the same time when I think that we will be leaving in only a month. Time goes quickly.

Last Sunday we used our day off to visit Visakhapatnam. It is the second largest city in Andhra Pradesh, our neighbouring state. We hired a vehicle early in the morning and drove on the usual, vertiginous, half-built roads to our destination. Surprisingly, once we passed the border from Orissa to Andhra Pradesh, the roads were fine with clear signs and well paved (for Indian standards). As my friend put it, AP's government does not steal from their people... That is just how it is. It's OK. 


The more I find out about Orissa, the more it frustrates me. It is one of the poorest states in India. Not because of a misfortunate geographical position, bad climate or general bad luck. It is the corruption. Orissa is rich in resources that could be exploited. It is also one of the states that receives most funding from the government and international organisations. But the money gets lost. And the development projects remain unfinished. As an example, Koraput's bus stand, which has been the same for more than 25 years at least. No changes, modernisation or repair work has been undertaken although it is in urgent need of some. Status Quo. It's OK.

But back to Visakhapatnam or Vizag as it is otherwise known. After a 5-hour journey we arrived at an incredible temple outside of the city, the Temple of Lord Varaha Narasimha Swamy, Simhachalam. The amount of pilgrims, colours, flower garlands and stalls was startling. You could feel the spirituality in the air. Pilgrims queued at the "free queue" for hours and hours to see the temple and perform a puja. We chose the option to pay and skip the queue as we had a lot to see and do before going back to Koraput. Thanks to our Hindu specialists, Jyostna and Vibs, we learned a lot about religious rituals and prayers. The Brahmins say the prayers in Sanskrit and (if you pay extra) they personalise them with your name. You can make a wish and hope for the best. Many people at the temple had shaved their heads as a sacrifice and a sign for wishes that had come true. Who knows, I might come back with a shaved head if my wish does come true.




After the temple we visited Vizag, which turned out to be a very modern city compared to Bhubaneswar. My two city experiences have been completely different. It really has made me aware of the backwardness in Orissa as its capital seemed more like a run-down big village compared to Vizag. We went shopping in a modern mall, walked by the beach at sunset and took a cable car that oversaw the whole city at night. It was a great day and we were knackered when we got to bed at midnight.



On Wednesday we celebrated Diwali. It is the Festival of Lights and one of the most important Hindu festivals of the year. Families and friends get together to perform different traditional activities. The houses and businesses are cleaned, pujas are performed, rangoli (traditional decorative designs) are drawn on the house thresholds and rows of diyas (small clay lamps) adorn the whole village. After the puja and the offerings, everyone bursts firecrackers. We celebrated Diwali with our landlord's family. We lit sparklers and crackers and fireworks. When I spoke to Indu, one of our friends at work, she told me she was not a fan of Diwali because of the noise of the fireworks. She said it scared her. I thought she was exaggerating at the time. On Diwali night I found out she was not. They were so loud and noisy it was scary. And not only that, most of the fireworks are 'handmade' and very dangerous. Sometimes they work, sometimes they do not. Risky. We still enjoyed it a lot and it was lovely to spend some time with our neighbours!

Work has been very slow this week. With our CEO gone because of a required mourning period of 11 days for his deceased father, things at the office have slowed down. It has brought to light the very solid patriarchal hierarchy within the NGO. Overall, we have to push and be persistent if we want to get our projects done. It took as a while to notice it… But it is all part of the learning experience and I think we are putting it into practice now. I am going to Majhiguda in a bit to start my livelihood strategy plan. Social mapping and PRA tools. I am excited.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Mossa-free villages

Mossa is Oriya for "mosquito". It is a word I have been hearing a lot lately. Since Annie Heslop arrived in Koraput, we have been very busy. She is a professional photographer from London who has been working with SOVA for a long time now. One day she heard about this area and realised she could help. She contacted Sanjeet (SOVA's CEO) and, after eight years, a lot of fundraising and many great pictures, here she is. Another year and another project: tackling malaria. Not a disease that people usually associate with India. When I thought about malaria, Africa and heat and jungles instantly came to my mind. Not India. India is about poverty and misery and cholera and maybe HIV/AIDS. But malaria? Well, as it turned out when I had to prepare for my journey, malaria is highly prevalent in the area and anti-malaria tablets were a must. I was not too sure about it, as when I went to Thailand these had also been recommended yet not necessarily required. And no one really hears about malaria in India, right? The reality of Orissa is different and the numbers are daunting. Although its population consists of only a 3% of India’s total, it contributes to about a 50% of reported deaths due to malaria in the country. Here is a great video that Annie produced.

There are three types of malaria. Two of them are widespread around our area, one of them being cerebral malaria. It can kill in 6 days if left untreated. It can also be prevented with the right tools. As our coworker said yesterday “We should buy the umbrella before it rains”. This is what Annie has been doing in cooperation with SOVA. She went back to England and managed to raise $35,000 in order to buy mosquito nets. Now, we are distributing these and helping to educate the tribes around Koraput. Some do not even know what malaria is. They do not know that the mosquito bites at night. They do not know that the disease spreads through mosquitoes.

The other day we went to Pottangi, which is the third worst affected area in the district. We found three people suffering from high fevers. One of them was a little girl. She could barely sit up. It was heart breaking. When we talked to the father, he told us he could not afford to take her to hospital because he had to work. Her mother had died a year ago after high fevers and delirium symptoms (cerebral malaria). She had bad luck. That is how they justified it. They do not know and malaria keeps taking lives. I had not been to this area before and I felt very sad and touched by these people who were so grateful for the work we were doing. It was tough but rewarding and enriching. I am happy. Happy to be able to help and do something about it.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Dussehra

Dussehra is the first big festival of the season. It commemorates the triumph of Good over Evil and is celebrated all around India with plays and stages about the tale of how Rama (the god-king and hero) killed the unrighteous Ravana (a 10-headed demon king) who had abducted Rama's wife, Sita. They build massive statues and brightly lit stalls in which the performances are held and where large crowds gather to venerate the Gods and perform pujas. 
It is a 10 day festival (because of the 10-day battle between Rama and Ravana) and for this reason SOVA gave us three days off that we utilised for our first trip around Orissa. Vibhuti decided to go visit her family in Gujarat so Ashley and I booked our tickets for Bhubaneswar, the state capital, accompanied by Jyostna, a coworker, who decided to join us on our trip. Guided by my loyal Lonely Planet, we booked a budget hotel and made Bhubaneswar our base for the trip.

We head off on Tuesday after work on a "non AC" night bus. Worst decision ever. It was the most awful journey of my life. 16 hours of bumpy roads, freezing cold due to a broken window and not one minute of sleep. Sleep deprived, tired and hot, we arrived in Bhubaneswar at 11.30am. After a bucket shower at our hotel Bhagwati Nivas and some delicious masala dosas, we decided to go sightseeing feeling refreshed and with a full stomach. This feeling did not last long. As it turned out, in Koraput we are very fortunate with the weather. As it is a hill station, it is much cooler that the rest of the state and we learned that the hard way sightseeing in Bhubaneswar. The temperatures reached the high thirties and  the heat was stifling. We did, however, manage to visit a beautiful temple and some old caves turned temples in the hills of the capital. I must say I was expecting a Delhi-type city, seen as it was the capital of the state. Orissa is mostly composed of villages and Bhubaneswar is the only city within it. Yet it felt more like a large village still being built, a lot of houses, huts and buildings put together to form a very eclectic concoction. It did work though and we enjoyed experience of a different "city". I must say though that cosmopolitanism and modernity is not yet to be found. We did not see another foreigner during the whole trip and the stares grew stronger wherever we went.

The next day we woke up early to get a local bus to Chilika Lake. After waiting for over 40 minutes at the bus stop, our bus was nowhere to be seen. Apparently it was normal during puja times as they use most vehicles for religious purposes and the traffic is disrupted. We spontaneously decided to change our trip and go to Puri instead. Puri is a famous pilgrimage place in Hinduism because of the large Jagannath Temple. Non-Hindus and hence foreigners are not allowed in so we went to the beach instead. We dipped our feet in the Bay of Bengal and enjoyed the sea breeze. It was a surreal experience. Indians do not sunbathe, let alone, put a bikini or swimwear on. They did however enjoy the water by dipping into the sea fully clothed. The beach was packed with hundreds of people swimming in the sea in coloured sarees, shirts and trousers.


After the beach we had a fish curry and took our second local bus to Konark. In India, the buses leave when they are full. There is no specific timing or schedule to which they stick to. In fact, when I say full, I mean "not-one-more-person-could-fit-anywhere-full". I sat on the hot engine cross-legged and enjoyed the hot journey. No need for saunas in India. Just take a local bus. It was worth it though, as the 13th Century Sun Temple in Konark was beautiful. It is one of the seven wonders of India and a Unesco World Heritage Site and worth 250Rs for us foreigners (and 10Rs for locals). Yes, that is a usual occurrence. Most monuments are around a 200% more expensive for foreigners but well. I guess we do not have to live with $50 a month... So, the temple was is a stone-carved chariot drawn by seven horses on 12 giant wheels. The walls are covered by Kama Sutra images and statues. It is interesting to see how, in India, people used to openly talk about sex and the art of passion and sensuality whereas, in the present, it has become a taboo area. Whenever we mention it, people giggle, blush and tell us not to speak about it. Although SOVA is different because they have to promote openness and HIV/Aids awareness, most of India is still shy when it comes to sex and talking about it is very frowned upon. In fact, on the bus journey back to Koraput we met the district doctor of the Koraput area. He told us he had worked with SOVA and NGOs before. It was thus a good opportunity for us to talk to someone that knew a lot about the HIV/Aids issue in our area. It turned out to be very disappointing. We told him about a new programme that SOVA had launched last year called Coaching for Hope. It aims to teach youths about HIV/AIDS through football, organising competitions and workshops. Through peer education and promotion of something perceived as fun (football) the children learn about HIV/AIDS and become more aware of the issue. The doctor said he did not think children were the right target as the majority of people that contract aids are at college level and hence older. He said that women should be targeted more as they should learn not to have sex before marriage and stick to the cultural traditions that used to protect them. According to him, the Western influence and modernity are "eluding" the traditional values and are hence to blame for promiscuity and the spreading of AIDS. Imagine my reaction when I heard that. I could not believe an educated man, the head district doctor, could be so archaic in his views. When I asked him, whether men should not also be educated as they are probably more likely to sleep around seen as it is "culturally acceptable", he said, yes but that was kind of it. I was appalled. As my friend Jyostna said: This is India, man! We have a long way to go...




Back to our trip. The next day, we decided to get up even earlier (6am) and find a bus that would take us to Chilika Lake. It is the largest brackish water lake in Asia (1100 sq km) and it was a wonderful experience after the dirt and chaos of the capital. We took a bus that left us at Balugaon, a tiny fishermen's village. Another eventful journey in India; the man sitting next to me threw up in his hands and trousers and scooped it out of our window without saying a word. This, combined with the sweat, heat and lack of space made the arrival at the lake even more rewarding. We took a 3 hour boat journey and visited two Kali temples built on islands. The Brahmins blessed us and in turn we gave them money. A good trade off I suppose. Although it becomes a bit annoying when they give you their blessing as an apparent gift and then expect you to pay. But well, they live of donations and are not meant to work so it is OK. It is unbelievable how much religion leads peoples' lives in India. You can sense the spirituality everywhere you go and it is nice to see how it brings people together. At the same time, it is beautiful how India is ruled by thousands of different versions of religions and even completely opposed beliefs yet still manages to achieve a sense of harmony. The lake was a nice experience of contemplation. Fishermen working together, some beautiful birds, splendid nature and  the peaceful water of the lake. After the journey back we decided to go shopping in a local market and found some gorgeous jewellery and potential gifts for friends and family.


The last day of our trip we ventured to the newly opened Mayfair Hotel in Bhubaneswar to taste some real coffee. What a good experience! After a month of instant coffee I very much enjoyed the smell of coffee beans and a croissant for breakfast. As much as I love Indian food, curries and spices for breakfast are still hard to get used to. After a long breakfast we went to the Nandankanan Zoo. We had wanted to go to a Wildlife Sanctuary Park but had to settle to the zoo for obvious price reasons (1000Rs compared to 100Rs...). It did however exceed my expectations. It was large, the animals had a lot of space and the the recreation of their natural habitats had been achieved. We even went on a lion and white tiger safari, which was a bit of a disappointment. We saw a white tiger sleeping at a distance from the "safari bus" and managed to get three lions. But it was probably more interesting to observe the excited Indian crowds leaning over to the windows to take as many pictures as possible. The safari cost 30Rs per person and was a 10 minute trip. With 30 people per bus and two leaving every 10 minutes, that makes 10,800Rs an hour and 86,400Rs a day! And it only takes a quick trip around the park. What a wonderful way to make money. I wonder where that money goes to.

After the zoo we had a last dinner at our usual South Indian restaurant and headed to the night bus. This time, AC and normal route. We somehow managed to be late. Luckily we were travelling with locals. No worries, just call the bus driver and tell him to wait. Now I know why buses are NEVER punctual! The journey was comfortable and even watched the latest Bollywood film that although in Hindi, we could somehow understand- says a lot about the story line.

Yesterday was a day of recovery from the travelling, general tiredness and overall impressions of the journey. Two films and a book later we went to bed, enjoyed the chilled temperatures of our hill station and the comforts of what feels a bit like home now.