Sunday, 31 July 2011

India: Journey & Arrival

Friday was a bittersweet day. I woke up at 5 am to skype Dad before he went to bed for the night. Went back to sleep for a couple of hours, then Christine and I met up and went shopping for everything needed for a fabulous brunch! We brought it back to her place so we could enjoy a (several course) brunch while Josephine finished packing and they cleaned out the rest of their things before their move home. We said our goodbyes in the afternoon and Josephine walked me to the tube station with my bags packed for India! It was hard saying goodbye to the Merlina's.  Being away from home and family, you really need some close friends that you can count on and share stresses with. These two have been that for me. We have only known each other a short time, but we have gotten to know each other and all got on really well. It was only a goodbye-for-now as we are already planning our reunion, hopefully in April.

On to the airport I went. My flight was from Heathrow that evening. I met up with our trip leader, Alison, as well as two others, Tamara and Mark. We were travelling as a team sent by Impact Teachers. They are the teaching agency I have been working for and also run this charity which does work in India and Africa. We took a 9 hour flight from London to  Dehli, then had a couple of hours lay over before taking the 2 hour flight from Dehli to Kolkata. Most of the layover was spent standing in line for the transfers security check. As we are standing in line I see a shadow out of the corner of my eye. Then I notice Alison is looking around too, so I ask, "Was that a mouse?" Yes. A mouse had run under the podium thing where the lady was checking passports. Welcome to India! Mouse aside, the Dehli airport was very clean and quited modern, which eased my mind since I knew I had an 8 hour layover there on the way back.

Beginning of a week of Indian food
We boarded the plane and there was an announcement but all I caught was "spray" and "harmless" and didn't realize what was happening until the flight attendants walked throughout the cabin spraying air freshener around everyone. This is a first. We had already had 2 meals on the first flight and before the next meal we would be getting on this flight they handed out the typical peanut airplane snack - but with an Indian twist. They were spicy fried peanuts. They packed a punch but were quite tasty. Finally, around 4 pm, we arrived in Kolkata. The first thing that hits you is the heat and humidity. It feels like you have walked into a sauna. And it would not stop feeling like that for the next 8 days. We found our luggage and got in line to change some money into Indian rupees. Indians don't do regular queueing, so just as Alison was about to reach the counter a man barged right in front of her figuring his transaction was going to be quicker so he ought to go first. Starting to think chivalry does not exist in this country. We finally get the money and Alison counts it to find the guy has tried to rip us off about 500 rupees. And again: Welcome to India!

Taxis outside Kolkata airport
We head out and meet up with Pastor Daniel and Diana, who are our contacts from the school we will be visiting. We leave the airport and now our next two senses are accosted (remember we already had the heat). Now it is the smells and the noises. We find a taxi and jump in to go to the train station. The ride is about an hour and is unlike any other car ride I have ever taken. I decided that if Mom ever comes to India she will definitely need a sound and light-proof helmet, otherwise she would never survive this cab ride without having a jammer. I take a video because I just cannot believe it. On the road there are taxis, cars, buses, auto-rickshaws,motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, and all are going at the same time, all are honking some kind of horn, and all seem to think they have the right of way. There is a hierarchy involved that we slowly learn over the course of the week.

We somehow survive the taxi ride without even hitting anything and are at the train station. We get to wait in the "first class lounge". Which basically means we are away from the beggars and people sleeping on the platform and there is a fan and possibly some air con. I look in the bathroom and think, if this is first class then I may be holding it all week. We are advised not to accept any tea, biscuits or bananas from strangers as they like to lace them with drugs that will make you drowsy so they can steal your luggage. I may also be fasting for the week.
On the train
Pastor Daniel shows us to some food that is safe and after our snack it is time to board the train for our 12 hour journey to Bihar. We are in A/C 2. Tier 2 with air con, yes! The other cars that are not A/C pretty much look like cattle cars and are jammed full of people. We settled into our little cubby space with 2 bunks on either side and a curtain closing us off from the aisle. We played some games and tried to kill some of the small cockroaches. In the middle of our game the curtain opens and a man stands there and says "housekeeping". He points to the floor so we pick up our feet and he sloshes some detergent on to the floor then wipes it around with a black sponge mop and leaves. A few minutes later a couple more housekeeping men come and ask us to fill out a survey about the cleanliness of the train. One of the final question asked about the cleanliness of the team, to which Tamara responds "Yes, you look clean, I'll give you a 5". The train offers a "Western" toilet and an "Indian" toilet. The latter has two raised bits you stand on and then a hole. Both of them offer little space between you and the tracks that you can see passing underneath.  Lots of snoring and blasting air con made for little sleep, but at least we could lay down here and rest our weary bums after the long flights.

With Claire, at the school
In the morning, we arrived in Bihar. The station was overwhelming. Bihar is one of the poorest regions in the country, and this was very obvious as soon as we stepped off the train. I immediately had a boy who looked about 7 tapping me on the arm and holding out his hand for change. Another child about the same age was carrying a tiny infant along the platform. Dogs were running around and people were sleeping everywhere, including some old men who were little more than skeletons. We walked through the station to where more representatives from the mission school were waiting to drive us to the school. Driving through the town and along the country was unbelievable. Garbage everywhere. Livestock and children wandering along the roads, hard to describe. I ended up taking many videos on my camera just because I knew it would be so hard to describe some of the things I ended up seeing this week.
Yummy lunch

We arrived at the school and were greeted by many kind people who we would be working with over the week and who were there to provide any comforts possible. They were really amazing people. The school has had some buildings and toilets built recently through the Impact charity. When we arrived, the 'governement power' was not working, but the generator was going. We had lunch and a shower. Which washed off the sweat, but started sweating again as soon as the cold water was shut off. Not exactly ideal, but was nice to refresh a little. We got a little walking tour around the compound and a bit through the village nearby. Then a lovely dinner was prepared for us and we got to relax before our busy week working with the teachers was to begin. Ended the day exhausted and over heated but excited to be in India.

It didn't take long for the village children to catch wind of us

Playing with village children

Fav shot, at entrance to school

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

School's Out For EVER!!

I made it!!! Today was my last day of teaching in the UK. It is rather cloudy and drizzly today, so it doesn't really feel like summer vacation but nonetheless it feels good to be done.
This year has been quite the experience and has taught me a lot about teaching and what it means to me.  The whole school culture is very different from Canada. I have definitely learned more about the kind of teacher I want to be, and now think that I could confidently answer the one interview-type question that always had me stumped - What is your teaching philosophy?
It was very nice having one school that I went to regularly. The staff are great at this school and it was sad saying our goodbyes today - I will miss these ladies.  I am looking forward to keeping in touch with them and seeing photos of babies soon-to-be-born, and of weddings soon-to-be-had.
I have grown a lot this year. I have learned a lot about teaching and have many new ideas that I can't wait to try out at home. Also,  I have learned a lot about myself and the things that are truly important to me. I feel like I have very different priorities and a very different outlook on life from when I boarded that long flight almost eleven months ago.  That being said, I have days where I sometimes feel almost nervous about coming back home. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely cannot wait to get back and be reunited with so many important people in my life, but I know that I have changed a lot and I hope that people will accept that. I guess I worry that some might be expecting that I will come back the same person ready to fall into the same routine. I don't see this happening and I hope that people understand this and will get to know the new me.  I suppose it will be easier with those who I talk to regularly, but with everyone having busy lives that was not the case with most.
Now I look around my room and wonder how on Earth this will all fit into one piece of luggage! On Friday I get on a plane, and travel to a +5.5 time zone to volunteer in India. Then I have some time to do the last of my London exploration and soon enough will be back on a plane to my -8 time zone. My poor internal clock - I'm sure it will think I'm 30 years old by the time I make it home!
I am going to MISS these girls!!!

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Lake District

Friday I turned off my phone and slept in! It was just lovely. Spent the day running errands and then up to the train station to meet up with friends. With my trip to India, and everyone starting to make their way back to the motherland, this was our last weekend together in the UK, so we booked a weekend getaway to the Lake District.
I got to the station early, plenty of time to collect my tickets... except I opened my wallet and realized my bank card was not there. I stood there in shock, replaying the day in my mind, and realized that I left it in the self-checkout at the grocery store - in Wimbledon! CRAP. I went up to the ticket counter and begged the man to give me my tickets, despite not having the card I booked them with. He was very kind, and didn't seem bothered to do me the favour at all *phew*. Luckily I had taken out 50 pounds and figured I could stretch it to last me the weekend.
We all slowly trickled in to the station, most arriving straight from work. The boys grabbed some burgers and we were just waiting on Jan, so we decided to get our seats on the train before it got too full. Then the train started pulling away and we still didn't have Jan. He called me and panted that he had just missed the train and would be on the next one, and hour later. This trip was off to a rocky start.
Sweet sweeet ponchos
We arrived in Windermere and walked to the first pub we came across to wait for Jan. We had to take a cab to the hostel, so no sense in him paying for one solo when he was less than an hour behind us. That evening Christine, Eric and Pat had a little more energy that Josephine, Jan and I, so they headed to another pub after we had checked in to the hostel. While the three of us went down to the dock for a bit, then chilled in the room before calling it a night.
Up relatively early in the morning so we could take advantage of a hot breakfast, we set out on our first day of adventure. It was rainy and a little windy, so the hostel said that they could not rent us "Canadian canoes" - which are apparently quite unstable. We walked down the road and bought ourselves some ponchos. Then we rented row boats down the road and set out on the lake.
In the afternoon we went for a walk in to Ambleside and hiked up to see some waterfalls. They were quite lovely. Later on Josephine and I headed back to the hostel while the others set out to find some caves. They mostly just succeeded in getting very wet and very lost, while Jo and I checked in at the next hostel.
Just after 10pm, they finally showed up, and luckily (for their own well-being) they had brought food to cook us dinner. We all parked ourselves in the self-service kitchen of the hostel while the boys cooked us up some delicious fajitas for a late-night supper.

Sunday morning we were up again for hot breaky. The previous day's hikers were a little slow to rise, but eventually made it down in time. We had to check out, but were allowed to leave our luggage so that we could set out for another walk. This walk took us from Windermere back to Ambleside. It was a sort of 'back road' route through the hills, a little over 3 miles. We had some lovely views of Lake Windermere as we walked along the crag, and even through a forest.
This scenery is the closest I have felt to home since being here. There were actual hills, lots of greenery, and lots of rain! But we didn't let us get it down and made the most of our weekend together. We are all still in denial that we really only have a few days left together. This was a great way to spend our last weekend in England. It really makes me want to show them Vancouver Island and all that it has to offer, since Jo and Christine are from Ontario and, though they deny it, are city girls. Being away from home, friends are your life line, and these girls have definitely been a big part of me getting through this year. We have shared a lot of memories in our relatively short time in England. We have been Wimbledon neighbours, and I will never forget these girls. We are already planning our spring break 2012 reunion, which will possibly include a romantic trip to Niagara Falls :)

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Throwing in the Towel!

Then end of term is rapidly approaching.  This week I was at my regular school for two days and I was pre-booked in to another school on Thursday. I felt exhausted all week. I didn't even get called in on Tuesday, but still just feeling drained. So I decided that Thursday would be my final day of supply. I am done with being  called into schools I've never been to and teaching kids I've never met. I do not have the necessary energy left and my mind is on anything but the day at hand.  So Friday I turned off my phone and got a lovely 10 hours of (much needed!) sleep! It was glorious!

I then spent the day running errands and getting my things together for a lovely weekend in the Lake District.
On Friday I am off to India for my volunteer adventure. I will be working at a school that is sponsored by the agency I work for in London.  The agency has built several buildings on the compound and already done two training sessions with the teachers.  We are going for the final week-long training sessions with these teachers. While I am there, some of my close friends will be moving back to Canada. It is hard to believe how a date that seemed so far away is almost here. So this was our final weekend in the country together and we decided to spend it in the Lake District, North of London. This is the closest I have felt to being home!

For starters, it was raining pretty much the entire weekend. Also, there were actual hills and lots of green. It was a fantastic weekend, that I will write about soon. But for now I am knackered and off to bed. For, although I am not doing supply, I am working three final days at my regular school this week. Monday - Wednesday and my teaching career in England is over. Hard to believe.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

San Fermin Festival

We are on holiday after all... Ferry: Dover to Calais
So many names to choose from for this blog that would help explain this insane festival. "Beer, bulls, sweet sangria and smelly cigars" or "Bulls, buses, sangria and sleep deprivation" or "Bulls, sangria, sweat and wee - the smells of Pamplona". You probably get the picture by now...
Monday afternoon we jumped on the bus not knowing that this would be the longest bus ride of our lives! After 2 hours, we were in Dover and waiting for the ferry to Calais, France.  The ferry takes about and
hour and a half, and is much like the Vancouver to Van Island ferry. After that, back on the bus for about, oh, a 16 hour drive to Spain. OUCH. This would be the beginning of the sleep deprivation part.  We stopped a few times along the way to restore blood flow and get 'nourishment'. I put that in quotations because the food available at the gas stations we stopped at was far from nourishing. We also did a little 'speed dating' to get to know our fellow bus travellers. Tuesday, just before noon, we pull up at our campsite, Lizarra Navarra. Out of the bus we pile and into the sea of tents that await. On go the swimsuits and we are laying by the pool in no time soaking up the hot Spanish sun!

Later in the afternoon, we get back on the bus and head into Pamplona for a tour of the city, a walk of the bull run, and some free time to explore and get our essentials for opening ceremonies the following day. At 9:30, we are back on the bus to join in the party at the campsite being thrown by the other tour group who is also at the campsite. Our tour company had about 300, and the other company seemed to have just as many. Needless to say, it was a noisy place!
We left the party a little early knowing that we had to get up, eat our free breaky, and leave for the opening ceremonies by 9:30am. This didn't matter much though since most of the rest of camp wanted to celebrate until well past 3 am, and tents offer little soundproofing. The sleep deprivation continues.

Along the run route

I'm tough too!

Opening Ceremonies:
The town is jammed with people in red and white. Opening day of the ceremony is marked by huge crowds gathered in all of the town's squares. The rockets shoot off at town hall announcing the beginning of the festival. The people who have been drinking sangria since well before 10 am, now spray it all over each other, while kids toss eggs and flour and some toxic looking yellow drink as well. Some have even brought ketchup and mustard to squirt on each other. This is the most insane thing I have ever seen, but hey, when in Spain... We decided to join in. I knew these white clothes were going in the bin anyway!
San Fermin!!

Riding the Bull!
Back at camp everyone is looking nasty and sticky, a little pool time before showering and chilling around the campgrounds with our new bus friends. Half of whom we had 'dated' on the trip down. Again, we try to sneak out early. This time we think it will for sure work since everyone has to be up early, on the buses at 5:30am to head in for the first running of the bulls.. Wrong again. Starting to wonder what sleep is?

Running of the Bulls:
5:00am. Who wakes up this early?? We do, because someone is walking past all the tents with a bullhorn playing "Ole, ole, ole ole, wake up, wake up", over and over again. This might make you chuckle, now imagine it is 5am, you are lying in a tent freezing your ass off and have probably slept a total of 2 hours in 3 days, yeah didn't think it would sound so amusing any more.
There go the bulls!!
Anyway, we suck it up because we are going to see the bulls today! On to the buses and into town. We have already staked out the spot we want near the beginning of the run with a good vantage point. We get off the bus and cannot believe the sea of rubbish everywhere! Everyone we walk past seems to still be awake from the previous day. Many are still drinking. The town reeks like stale booze and pee. I believe my exact words were "wow, this city smells like a bad hangover".
Our spot must have been a good choice because there are already people there. We squeeze in and wait the almost 2 hours for the run to start. People are pacing the route. The run route is cleared of rubbish by sweeper trucks and city workers and then the road is hosed down - this is why on the videos you always see people and bulls slipping and sliding. The cops show up and some paramedics to line the route. People are now stretching and praying. The safety announcements start playing. Now the cops are grabbing people, espcially anyone who is trying to take pictures, and pulling them off the run route - not today fellas!
Sangria BBQ
Finally the rockets goes off and the bulls are coming. Panicked people start running by us, followed by a stampede of bulls. Many of the less daring press themselves against the walls as the bulls thunder past, the others do their best to run. The bulls are past us in about 3 seconds. That seemed somewhat anti-climatic. Then, suddenly, people are running back and some are flinging themselves over the fencing. One bull has gotten turned around and is running back down the run. Then gets turned right way and is going back again. Another slow poke then saunters by too, guess he didn't feel the same need as the others to run.
All is over and we make our way for some coffee to warm up, back to the campsite for pool time and a sangria BBQ.
At the BBQ, Topdeck staff have made about 400 litres of sangria that is included in the ticket, along with delicious food. We know that this sounds dangerous and also want to make the most of our only good tanning day, so we go light on the beverage. Others, not so much. After pool time we shower to head into town for the fireworks and notice some guys taking care of their friend who is passed out on an airmatress in an empty campsite - at least they are feeding him water. Then we notice our tent neighbour, passed out in her tent in her own vomit. Lovely. We head into town dreading the bus ride with the drunks - luckily only one guy requests a barf bag just before we arrive in the city.
The fireworks are amazing! Part of the festival is now an international fireworks contest. Most likely the best display I have ever seen.
Everyone is tired from no sleep and a 5:30 wake up? Nope, more sleep-deprivation and night of shivering in the tent. What is sleep and why do we need it again?

Last day:
Again, 5am wake up fun. Today we have decided we are watching the running of the bulls from the bullring. This is where the bull fights are held each night. We knew that the bulls we killed, but after hearing the details of how, we decided to skip the bull fights. But watching the run from inside will allow us to see the whole run on the big screens and the bulls and runners at the end of the run. We get some good seats and enjoy the atmosphere. This is a very tradional festival and there are definitely some mixed feelings towards tourists. One guy in front of us kept trying his best not to pass out, but the locals around him were not impressed until he finally got up to find others who he could nap on.
The stadium slowly filled, then over filled. There are no rules, no guidelines. People do whatever they want. We had a group of young teens in front of us clearly boozed at 7:30am, smoking and having a good time. Fights would break out and everyone would stand and cheer and whistle - no security in sight. The bulls and their stats are on the big screen, biggest today is 545 KG!!
Bulls entering the stadium
The run starts and not long after people start running into the stadium, but there are no bulls yet. This is a huge 'faux-pas' and the locals start not only booing, but chucking anything on hand at these people who have run in too soon. Now we hear the thunder approaching and the bulls enter hot on the tails of people who look like they are dirtying their pants! (One guy on our bus apparently missed the run because he actually did dirty his pants. Shame.) They storm right through the stadium and straight through to the bull pens on the other side. When we are about to complain about the anti-climatic issue again, a straggling bull arrives, gets turned around and pummels a guy to the ground. Capes are thrown over the man and people try to distract the bull, who makes it into the pen. We are laughing and thinking "that's it?".
Bullring: Seating capacity of almost 20 000
The runners are all mingling in the ring and taking pictures of themselves. Then we see the sea of people part. An opening is created in the crowd and moves around the ring. It looks like a school of fish being startled. Then we see him. A small steer has been released back into the ring to run through the people and toss whoever he chooses into the air. Now this is getting fun! After this steer has his fun, they let a big bull in who leads the steer back to the pens. They do this with about 6 steers. The crowd cheers as they watch people tossed and trampled. This is again where tradition comes in and locals get mean. Tradition is that you are supposed to distract the bull, then run out of the way. But tourists, who are pretty much pumping sangria through their veins now, want to touch the steer, some even try to ride it. These people find their glory is short lived. Soon after they raise their arms in triumph, they find that they are being beaten senseless by locals who fiercely protect the steers. Crazy to watch!
Someone`s gonna get tossed!
After all the fun is over, it is back to the campsite for breaky. We pack up our things and chill in the shade before our long journey home.
What an adventure this was! This festival is attended by over one million tourists, on top of the locals already there. It is an amazing mix of tradition and tourist attraction/giant party. I am still dumbfouded over and over again by these festivals and traditions that are kept alive. It is hard not to spend a lot of time thinking "They would never allow this back home!" It may be dangerous, it may seem crazy, but it is tradition and despite the changing world, it lives on.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Tennis & Trafalgar Square

I live in Wimbledon. I figure this sets me up for the inevitable question when I get back to Canada: "So did you go to Wimbledon?" I also figured it would be embarrassing to have to answer "No". So Josephine and I decided we needed to see some tennis. Despite the new tradition of rain as soon as school lets out, and the fields full of people camping who apparently all line up early in the morning, we decided to try to get in. Things worked out perfectly when I got called in to work an afternoon in a nursery class, that just happens to be the class that Josephine works in as a TA. After work, we jumped on the tube together and made our way to Wimbledon.
Southfields "tennis-fied"

Wimbledon is the place to see and be seen for Brits. Southfields station, which is closest to the gates, has had a complete make over to appear classy enough to welcome all of the schmancy tennis spectators. We walked to the gates and were shocked to walk right in. The man who handed us our tickets informed us that the next morning when playoffs started that lineup would have been about 20 000 people!
Since we arrived after 5pm, we got cheap grounds tickets that gave us access to unreserved seating areas for courts 3-19. So not the big centre courts, but good enough for us and our budget! We did get to see the hill that is always shown on TV where they have a big screen set up to watch centre court. We could also hear all of the fans inside, which was pretty neat as the stands have the capacity for 15 000 people!
We watched a few matches, there were juniors playing mostly. On the big courts were women's quarter finals.
Tennis "fan" - I googled how to keep score while we watched

Centre Court - the big clock up top is Rolex

It was an interesting atmosphere with a mix of tourists, like us, and hardcore tennis fans all dressed to the nines. Wimbledon Tennis Club itself is massive, beautifully landscaped and dressed. The clocks on the walls are all Rolex!

Friday was Canada Day! I took the day off work because I needed to get my final vaccinations for India. Also hit up the gym, which I haven't done in a couple months. I figured I was due for some strength training on top of all the cardio I have been doing. Though it was a great idea to go and just do strength for almost 2 hours, but now it is 2 days later and I can still barely walk. Not my brightest idea, but it did feel good. A good pain :)

Representing the homeland!
Back to Canada Day. I made my way down to Trafalgar Square where everything was happening after lunch. I did a quick look around, saw the line for Tim Horton's looked about an hour long and that they only had doughnuts for £1 and coffee for £1.50Then I ran into Andi, who had just gotten half a dozen doughnut and offered me one. Perfect!

We met up with Jen and stood in line for about and hour and a half for some free face painting. Since we had to wait for most people to finish work, and we met a ton of fellow Canadians while waiting, it wasn't so painful. Also helped that the sun was shining. We then explored all of the tents. Met the Canadian chef who was supposed to be doing cooking shows all day (he is apparently the 'Gordon Ramsay' of Canada). Well, he had gotten to drunk, so they cut his shows off around 2pm. We met him and he immediately had something to say about my Canucks shirt, so I gave him a piece of my mind. Then he grabbed one of Andi's remaining doughnuts and told her to take a picture of him and me while he scarfed down the doughnut she had just stood in line for 45 minutes to buy. Needless to say she was not so happy.
Probably one reason I don't have a real tattoo...

Slowly our working friends joined us and we enjoyed our national day surrounded by Canadian accents and more "excuse me" and "sorry" expressions than I have heard in over 10 months! Also finished up the night with a free concert from Blue Rodeo. Amazing! It is even said that Wayne Gretzky was there, though he didn't address the crowd. Mike Meyers was there too and went on stage to wish everyone a Happy Canada Day - indeed!

Hope everyone back home enjoyed the long weekend. I am just finishing up my packing because tomorrow I am heading to Spain. Running with the Bulls!!
My new drunk chef friend...

Trafalgar Square
Blue Rodeo!