Monday, January 31, 2011

Unique home for girls - an orphanage in need

 In India, female foeticide is cruelly common with 1 in 25 female babies being aborted. For those baby girls who are born, often they are deemed ‘still-born’ and literally thrown into trash cans, strangled or burnt. India is still very much a male dominated society that lacks the education to understand that women should have equal rights. When a baby girl is born in India it can often be a burden on the family as their only perceived use is marriage and this is a costly affair that brings no value to the girl’s family.
 Today, Brent and I visited a girl’s orphanage in our city of Punjab. Female foeticide is at its highest in this city with 749 girls born to every 1000 boys.  ‘Unique home for girls’ as it is called is hidden down an alley way and the entrance is fitted with a little flap similar to a large letterbox where people can drop off their unwanted baby girls. Our experience here was truly moving and overwhelming. The home is run by 12 Indian women who volunteer their time to love and care for 60 odd girls who they call daughters. The youngest baby currently in the home is less than a month old. The women asked us for nothing but they are clearly in need of a lot.
The babies don’t wear nappies – part tradition part cost cutting so the constant washing and drying of clothes is both costly and time consuming and the stench of their shared room is overpowering with urine and baby vomit. Babies sleep 3-4 or more in a cot and everything is shared. While we were there, the school aged children sat together on the cold concrete floor and studied their English workbooks, for education is paramount for these girls. Despite it being early Sunday morning the girls sat in patient silence dutifully studying their books. Remarkably when I asked a girl of no more than 7 to read to me she read in perfect English. Interestingly she hadn’t the faintest idea of the meaning of the words and has merely been taught to blend sounds.
The amount of girls coming into the orphanage is rapidly increasing and the volunteers are hoping to build a larger building to facilitate the needs of the children. Brent and I have promised to return next Sunday with formula and nappies and hope to continue giving and volunteering here for the rest of our time in India. We are also hoping to raise some money to help them further with their building project and any other supplies they may need. We are asking that people please donate to this orphanage. Any amount no matter how small will be appreciated. In India $1 can go a long way. We also ask that you pass this information on to as many people as you can to help raise awareness and in turn funds for these extremely needy young girls.
At this stage we don’t know of a bank account where you can donate directly to the orphanage so we are asking that people give any donations to us so we can directly give the money to the orphanage. If you would like to donate please email me at and I can email you bank details. Please remember every little bit counts.
Babies Angel (left) and Smila (Right) because she always smiles

Grumpy and in need of a sleep

Jasmine - Who they made my God-daughter

The beautiful toddlers

Even as babies they can line up in a straight line

The new borns

The girls studying

Me with Jasmine and one of the volunteers

Where babies can be left

Even as orphans these girls find it in themselves to smile

This little girl read to me in fluent English - But could not understand a word

Zenab - a favourite amongst the staff and children due to her cheeky personality

Saturday, January 29, 2011

University or primary school?

I began classes at my Indian university yesterday. Actually it was my third attempt at starting. The first time was on the 4th of January and I was told classes would not start for another three weeks and to come back on the 27th. The second time, on the 27th, I was told to “come back tomorrow, we are not ready yet” and on the third try, classes actually began.
After only two days attending university in India I can confidently say that university life here is vastly different from that of Australia. I feel like I am in a time warp and have travelled back to primary school in the 1980’s. Unlike Australian university, we stand to greet our teacher who is called ‘Mam’ or ‘Sir’ and raise our hand if we wish to speak and then stand to deliver our point. As students we are passive and silent and don’t speak unless spoken to. The teaching is rote in style and as students we copy the dictations of the teacher and are quizzed on our memory of dates, theorists and definitions. Regurgitation of facts seems to take precedence over any actual understanding or practical application of the knowledge itself. Upon being given my first assignment which is to be submitted in pen or pencil, I questioned the lecturer on the required length. Her response to this was “Write as much or as little as you like depending on what grade you aspire to.”                                                                         I replied by asking her what the preferred referencing style was and ‘Mam’ responded with “referencing? We do not reference our writing. Just write the person’s name you are referring to should you wish to refer to anyone.”
Similar to an Australian primary school, the students walk around the campus hand in hand but rarely will you see this contact between a male and female student. Men hold hands and show affection with men as do women with women. High fiving each other in class when a correct answer is given is also common. India is quite a conservative country and just as the dorm rooms are separated into male and female areas so too are the classrooms.
At the end of my first day I was approached by a beautiful young Indian girl dressed in westernised tight jeans and a hot pink jacket with an unusually fashionable handbag. Her only give away was impractical strappy high heels worn over thick bright stripy socks. The girl thrust her hand in my face and told me her name “I am (let’s call her Tammy) the most famous and popular girl on campus. You and I will be best friends. You have much to benefit from hanging out with me but I don’t have much to gain from you. I will help you anyway” and with that she trotted away. I felt like I had just stepped on set of a Hollywood teen flick and could only laugh as the girl walked off. Needless to say Tammy tracked me down the following day staying true to her word and kissing me like a long lost best friend and leading me around campus filling me in on the ‘ins and out’ of how she came to be so popular and famous on campus. I must admit the usual level of staring I receive increased from intense to extreme when I was walking with my ‘popular pal’ but I can’t shake the feeling that she has an ulterior motive for me.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Star attraction at Ellora caves

 A trip to Maharashtra wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the many cave temples. We chose to visit the world-Heritage listed Ellora Cave temples which are made up of 34 caves over 5000 years old.  The caves have been chipped out by Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks and are so intricately detailed it’s any wonder it took 150 odd years to complete.
Oddly enough Brent and I proved to be the main attraction and found ourselves being stopped and stared at by hundreds of Indian tourists. I can now confidently say my photograph is hanging on the walls of at least 50 odd Indian homes. On several occasions groups of passing school children literally swarmed me to practice a few phrases of their freshly learned English or to get a touch of my white skin. A fellow Westerner even took my photo which made me think I may have been mistaken for someone else or perhaps it was my hair (which is still in hundreds of tiny braids) that caused all the fuss. At one point, a group of people were crowded around a tree taking photos and I noticed it was full of monkeys. I walked over to join in the monkey fanfare and the crowd turned on me like paparazzi snapping away at me with their cameras and phones.
I only hope the people got enough satisfation out of the magnificent caves as they did out of me. It certainly was an interesting experience.

Buddhist Cave

Buddhist Cave
Me being swamped by children

Some trendy young boys

A ferocious monkey taking a drink

Cruising monkey


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Magical Mumbai

Bollywood films aside, Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) is a great place to be. With a population of over 16 million it’s strangely not overwhelming. The Maharashtra capital is extremely cosmopolitan dotted with colonial style buildings and architecture. So far, it has also been the most contradictive place we have seen where Millionaires meet slums and Porches meet horses.
 Thanks to our 30 seconds of fame we have met some fellow travellers in Mumbai and I love that in such a populated town and after only two days we can walk down the main strip of Colaba and bump into people we know. For those of you have read Gregory David Robert’s book Shantaram (and if you haven’t I highly recommend it) you will appreciate the mention of Leopold’s café. Leopold’s was made famous (or more so) by Roberts who continually mentions the café in his book which is based on the Aussies life as a fugitive in India. The prices are high in the café so we only stop for coffee but the waiter shows us a picture of Roberts and informs us that after finally serving out his sentence he now lives in Mumbai and visits the café regularly. I purposely walk past the café several times a day in hope of getting a glance.
Another place on my to-do list was Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat. This is the place where clothes are washed by thousands of people beating and scrubbing them on the stone basins. There was a small fight just outside the entry to this human washing machine but I decided to sneak a peek anyway (as Brent wasn’t too keen). A plain clothed man asked me for R100 to go inside and given that there were no guards or any other tourists around I decided to hand it over hoping it would earn me the privilege to take some photos. I didn’t get too far inside before I was bombarded by a group of men and their children asking me to take their photos. I happily obliged, showing the children their pictures and taking more as the men demanded. It wasn’t until the men started angrily demanding more money for the photos of their starved children that I started to grow suspicious. I lied and told them I would go outside and get some ‘baksheesh’ from my husband and slyly snuck away.
We also visited Haji Ali’s mosque, a beautiful seemingly floating Muslim shrine with an incredibly long walkway to the actual mosque. It is lined with hundreds of beggars from children to invalids as well as goats and stray dogs. The crowds combined with the overwhelming sight of beggars and the relentless sun made this trip a quick one but was worthwhile nonetheless.
We met some incredible people in Mumbai. Everyone had a story to tell. I am sad to leave this city.
India Gate

Taj Mahal Palace and Tower which was bombed in 2008 Terrorist attacks

Leopold's Cafe with one of the staff

Our accomodation at the Salvation Army

Dhobi Ghat from above

A man hanging out the clothes at Dhobi Ghat

Haji Ali's Mosque

Brent getting a shave

A game of cricket Maiden Park

A photograph of Gregory David Roberts - Shantaram

Victorias - Or Horse drawn carriage of which there are hundreds in Mumbai

A rather healthy-looking Mumbai dog

Friday, January 21, 2011

Kristen really does go Bolly

We'd barely stepped off our 13 hour bus ride from Goa to Mumbai and we'd already been scouted as extras for an up and coming Bollywood film. As I said "No thanks" Brent simulataneously blurted out "Yes please" and the next morning we found ourselves with two fellow Aussies from our bus trip crammed into a taxi headed off to the set of Bollywood.

It was worth the two and half hours of choking on polluted air to get there and turned out to be a pretty incredible experience. Although we weren't exactly treated as stars our scouter made good on the promised food and water and payed each of us R500 for the day (which in turn covered our accomodation). And who can complain about rubbing shoulders with some of Bollywoods biggest starts including Bobby Deon, Akshay Kumar and the beautiful new comer Sonam Kapoor.

The movie we worked on is called Thank You  and will be released in April. As far as we know it is a comedy with the commom cliched overtones of a Bollywood love story. Thanks to my hair I was lucky enough to score three parts, one of which included a hideous peach dress and where I was required to dance the same ridiculous moves over and over for several hours with a handsome professional Indian dancer. Brent also made this part and another 'walking part' but he fears these may get cut! Either way we are pretty sure our parts will be barely recognisable but it's not everyday you can claim you were in a Bollywood film. It also turned out to be a great place to meet some fellow travellers and swap tales of our Indian adventures.

While waiting for the train back to the Salvation army (our home in Mumbai) still buzzing from the days events, I was once again plumetted back down to earth when a small child tugged on my arm. She was no more than seven and in her arms was the most beautiful tiny baby no more than a week or so old. I had no change on me and had given away all of my bananas but I couldn't resist taking the childs face in my hands and asking her where her Mama was. "Mama?" she half stated half questioned tilting her head to the side. I touched the babies check and held its warm hand for a moment half checking to see if it was alive. The little girl smiled at me and the Indian man that was with us gave her some change. I was longing to hold them both but our train was waiting.

For some reason the glitz and the glamour of the Bollywood set only accentuates the poverty which haunts India . That night as I lay on the thin hard mattress confined to the cracked stained walls of the prison-like room I realise honestly for the first time how truly blessed I am, how comfortable and easy my life is and just how unfair this world is. 

Arriving for costume change

In costume. Smokey nightclub scene with professional Indian dancer

Sonam Kapoor (Female Bollywood actress)

Brent and Ian (Aussie mate) preparing for Art gallery scene

Art gallery scene

Brent on set

Famous Bollywood actor Bobby Deon and Jo (left: Aussie mate)

In Action. The man in front of me in the white is the main actor Akshay Kumar