Monday, February 28, 2011

Fire in the hostel!

While settling in for the evening last night, Brent and I noticed the lights start to flicker in the room. We didn't think too much of this as there is constant power cuts and as the temperature increases daily so too do the cuts. It wasn’t until a strange chemical smell started to fill the room that we thought to take a look and when we opened the door we were shocked to find the corridor filling with smoke. Simultaneously curious girls also opened there hostel rooms but greeted the situation in absolute chaos, screaming and crying with fright. I decided to go and fetch the guards and as I did so the fuse box burst into flames only an arm’s length away from our rooms. Stupidly, our young female neighbours panicked and locked themselves into their rooms.

While I struggled to stress the urgency of the situation to the guards in a mix of broken Hindi and English, Brent tried to negotiate with the girls, screaming at them to get out. Thankfully, just as he was about to set the fire alarm off he noticed an extinguisher and was able to put the fire out. A few minutes later (and a few too late) the guards and military arrived to assess the situation. As it turns out, a piece of plastic sitting on the fuse box heated up and caught on fire blowing the fuse box and setting the surrounding cables on fire. As Brent later pointed out, not much damage could have been done considering our building is brick but I suggested to the warden that the girls be given some basic fire training and knowledge of how to use the extinguisher. We are so thankful they didn’t try to put the fire out with water!

Brent and I are constantly joking about the safety hazards around the university and how in Australia they would be fenced off or signed as dangerous or even lead to closure. In India and in the university itself it is not uncommon to have to step over fallen crackling power lines to get to your next class. No one walks too close to the faculties as bricks and other materials are often been thrown off without warning and I have literally climbed over knee high rubble of bricks and building materials to get into a room. The entire university is constantly under construction with noisy building going on day and night. I was starting to think that in Australia we are just too cautious, but after last night’s fright I am happy for my country’s safety and security.  

Unique Home for Girls Video - compiled from our photographs

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Good old Aussie values

During a recent Sociology class discussion on the impact of Westernisation on India I was asked to describe Australian values and how they differ from that of India’s. Initially I was stumped by this question. You would think that the answer to this question would and should come easily to a born and bred Aussie, but all I could come up with was “um, I guess they are the same as anywhere else.” What a crock!  
I am ashamed to admit my pathetic and un-Australian response but after a few moments I realised that the reason behind not being able to pinpoint our values is because they are so far from the Indian values. This is not to say that the Indian values are wrong or even bad, they are just a far-cry from your average (and I am stereotyping) Australian values. India throws at you challenge after challenge. If it’s not yet another bout of food poisoning, its dealing with the bureaucratic systems, communication breakdowns, cultural differences or pure sensory overload and sometimes it feels as though you are only moments away from drowning in the thick of it all. And this is how you come to forget your own countries values, by being so overcome and overwhelmed by those of another’s.    
So, I went back to my hostel after class and googled Australian values and this is what I came up with:
Mateship: It seems that in Australia we tend to forge lifelong bonds with our mates and they are strong yet ‘easy-going’. In India, it takes a mere 30 seconds to form a new best friend yet these are rarely relaxed. The demands of friendship here can be quite tiresome and almost always require the strict routine of offering extreme hospitality that never seems to wear out and should of course be returned, even if you’ve only ever met the person briefly. A man on the train once offered me some sweets and now in return expects me to house his entire family once back in Australia!  
Respect and tolerance: Australians have a general sense of respect and tolerance for each other and the environment. If you accidently bump someone it’s usually responded with “No worries, mate”. When in traffic you give-way to incoming cars and if you are in a line you wait your turn. If you have rubbish you wait to find a bin to dispose of it and shopkeepers ask “how’s your day been, love?” In India, respect is usually caste or class based. A man may bow to touch the feet of an elder friend but refuse another elderly man of a lower caste a seat on the train. Personal space is unheard of in India and if you are shoved, you shove back twice as hard to ensure your spot is not lost. You yell at the ‘purposefully ignoring’ shopkeeper to get his attention and tell him his product is no good to get a better price. You don’t say ‘thank you’ or ‘please’ and you throw rubbish out on the street because as long as it’s not in your house it’s not a problem.
Equality or our ‘Fair go’ spirit: In Australia, with a small exception, we generally refer to all people by their first names. Women have the same rights as men and religion bears no barrier to your privileges. There is no better class or caste and your plumber is treated with the same respect as your work colleague. In India, there is a complex system of who is better than the other and this dictates who deserves respect and who doesn’t. This complex system is based on but not limited to age, gender, religion, caste and relationship. Women are still hugely discriminated against and Brahmins still largely demand the most respect.
Generosity and support: Some recent Roy Morgan research found that one in two Aussies feel it is their duty to help people in need overseas by providing the tools and training to help find solutions. Although we might be tight when it comes to our ‘shout at the bar’, when it comes to a crisis, whether nationally or internationally, Australians are among the first on the scene or the first to put their hand in their pocket regardless of whether we know the person or not. In India, if you know someone or are of equal or higher class, their generosity and support is endless, but if you’re a beggar on the street, a homeless person or have just crashed your car, it’s unlikely you’ll receive any sympathy, just curious stares.  An Indian friend recently told me that with so much poverty and corruption, Indians need to take care of themselves to ensure they stay afloat in such a country.
My list could go on and on but I think you get the picture. Many of our values are the same in theory but stand for completely different things when put into practice. Australia’s values aren’t better or worse than Indian values they are just simply different and I guess that contributes to a countries culture and unity. If they were the same, I suppose I wouldn’t have had such a strong desire to visit the country.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Indian Wedding

Brent and I attended our first Indian wedding last week. It has taken me a whole week to think of a word that wholly describes an Indian wedding but even after a week I still can’t seem to pinpoint a word that can describe the enormity and magnificence of an Indian wedding. Incredible and overwhelming are two words continually popping into my mind but they just don’t do justice to this extraordinary affair.
The wedding we attended was that of a Sikh couple. Sikhism is a religion in India that approximately 1.9% of the population follow. It may seem like an insignificant number, but when you’re living in the birthplace of that religion (i.e. Punjab) it seems as though every person you meet is a Sikh. I will dedicate another blog to this religion but to put it into some context for you, the men who wear the turbans, often in vibrant and magical colours, are Sikh.  
The wedding we attended was in Delhi and although we attended two of the three ceremonies I am told that in a traditional Sikh wedding there are many more, often up to six. The first night resembled something like an Australian wedding reception with a mere 100 or so ‘close’ friends and family of the bride coming together to dance and feast. It was a rather casual affair on our part, attending in jeans and a t-shirt, but the continuous Punjabi-style music pulsing through the brightly coloured red and yellow marquee resembled something of a grand affair. This pre-wedding ceremony was the Mehendi celebrations (commonly known to us westerners as henna tattooing) where the bride’s hands, arms, feet and lower legs are tattooed with temporary henna. I am told the Mehendi pattern transforms the bride from a virgin girl into a temptress for her husband. It is also believed that the darker your henna appears, the more your future mother-in-law will love you. Talk about pressure! The henna is also applied to friends and family and I happily joined in on this auspicious occasion only to regret it immediately after as I was told I had to wait two hours before I could touch anything. When dish after dish of sumptuous food is being served under your nose it becomes very frustrating not being able to use your hands!
With Brent and several Indian mothers’ hand- feeding me like a child I quickly filled up on delicious Indian foods only to be told they were ‘just snacks’ with the main meal being served shortly.  Just when you think it is impossible to fit another morsel of food in your mouth, more food is brought out and it is considered the height of rudeness not accept this hospitality. Following the food came the dancing and unlike in Australia, it is the men who dominate the dance floor with some incredible Indian-style dance moves. While trying to imitate the Indian women’s moves, one mother forcibly pushed her son onto the dance floor next to me insisting that he speak and dance with me. The fact I was married seemed to be no issue for her and her infatuation with me and insistence on dancing with her son continued throughout the evening.
The following night was the wedding reception. Approximately 1200 guests piled into a colourful, fairy lit marquee complete with golden horse fountains, a red-carpet, fire-crackers, professional Punjabi dancers and a chariot for the groom.  The marquee was lined with food buffets and stalls ranging from traditional Indian foods to a Pizza man making fresh pizzas. There was an ice-cream parlour, fresh fruit salads, a popcorn machine, salad bars and chapatti being made to order, just to name a few. In addition, waiters scaled the room all night offering snacks, mocktails, shakes and liquor.
Following tradition, the groom arrived late, veiled in his chariot. After his arrival, the bride surrounded by her brothers and cousins was solemnly led up the red carpet to meet with her groom who was waiting on a small, circular risen stage in the middle of the room. The bride is literally being given away and it is quite an emotion time. Once on the stage they exchange some sort of flower lei and rose petals are shot out of a funnel covering the couple. Afterwards they retreat to the centre stage where they remain all night while guests offer gifts, flowers and well-wishes. I am told the following day, there will be an official marriage ceremony in the Gurdwara, the Sikhs place of worship.
After completely stuffing ourselves we waddle out of the reception to head home. The reception is a rather short affair considering the amount of money and effort that goes into it. Most families begin saving for their daughter’s wedding the moment she is born and entire family savings can be spent on her dowry.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Another trip to the orphanage

As promised we returned to the orphanage on Sunday with the donations raised so far from some kind-hearted Aussies. Last Sunday we took an Indian man with us to ensure we could find our way and properly communicate our intentions, however this Sunday we went alone. Initially the visit proved a little difficult as the workers speak Punjabi, the states local language and very limited English. The volunteer staff had changed shift and the new workers who we didn’t meet last week were unsure of who we were and again unsure of our intentions. Nevertheless the volunteers were extremely grateful for the donations and immediately sent an older child off to the market to buy food and other necessities for the babies. After some time the tension settled and the volunteer workers could see that we just wanted to help. Our duties thus far seem to be limited to feeding the babies and playing with the toddlers and children but we hope with time they will gain more trust in us and see us not as guests but as two people who simply want to help in way. Apparently drop-in volunteers are pretty much unheard of!
By using some serious body-language and without the girls understanding a word of English we were able to set up a very large game of duck-duck-goose. For a while the laughter and delightful squeals of the girls almost made me forget I was in the middle of an orphanage but the call to attention to resume studies was a sharp reality check. Every moment of the girls’ life is structured. It is essential to maintain the efficient running of so many children and sadly (or perhaps thankfully) the majority of the children don’t know any different. You may be thinking that the girls are fortunate because they are in the orphanage and not being used and abused on the street, and I would have to agree. However, these girls are in no other way fortunate although upon meeting them you can see that despite their situation they are happy and content. Why this situation is so heartbreaking is because these innocent little girls do not know that a better life exists and the hard truth is, they will never know. Most girls stay in the orphanage for life and become volunteers unless they can be married off. In such a complex and still highly illiterate country with narrow-minded traditions still dominating, marriage is also unlikely. Adoption is extremely improbable as the process is long and bureaucratic which only adds to their heartbreaking situation.
Although the staff at the orphanage do an amazing job in caring for and loving these children it is heart-wrenching to watch these girls who think it is normal to share a bed with four or five others and be fed out of used plastic bags and buckets  like pigs in a pen. It is painful to think that such young children are burdened with the worry of whether there will be enough food to go around, whether there will be enough warm clothes to be shared and whether there will be enough room if another child comes. It is horrible that these girls will not be given the same opportunities as other children and it is frustrating that the world is so cruel. There is very limited opportunity for the girls and their childhood is short-lived. Even the toddlers of one and two are completely independent. I watched on in amazement and sadness as a toddler crawled up and out of her cot to retrieve a potty and after finishing her business promptly cleaned and replaced it. While realistically the girls’ long-term situation is likely to remain the same in terms of staying orphans, Brent and I hope that through volunteering and raising money we can make the situation a little brighter and the conditions of living a little easier. We are currently working on putting together a little moviemaker clip to circulate around schools, university, churches and workplaces but it will be completely based on word of mouth and current relationships with these groups. It’s a big ask but our goal is to make enough money to significantly help in building a new home to accommodate the growing number of orphans. If we don’t at least try we certainly won’t get anywhere. In the interim, smaller donations are being directly handed over to the girls to ease the burden of buying enough food and baby formula.
Again, thank you to those who have so kindly donated. If you are reading this blog and would like to donate please email me at Please feel free to pass this information on to those who you think might like to contribute.
Is this not one of the cutest faces you have seen?

One of the workers jumps in the cot to make feeding the toddlers easier

Washing up after lunch

So may cuddles

The girls just adore Brent

A shy but cheeky grin

Indian hospitality

You may have noticed I haven’t blogged for a while and there are two reasons behind this – one I was hoping to keep the post about Unique Home for girls up for as long as possible with the intention of getting the orphanage more exposure and two, I didn’t want to bore you with the mundane ins and outs of attending lectures and hand-writing assignments for which I have no clear direction on what it is I am actually supposed to be doing.  
Nevertheless I did manage to sneak out of the university for the weekend and even braved the bus alone for the first time as I went and visited my ‘Popular’ friend’s home. As it turns out my somewhat negative presumptions about her turned out to be wrong. I am ashamed to admit that she is just a kind-hearted, well meaning Indian girl with a penchant  for fashion and socialising (although slightly demanding). After mentioning to her that I had my first Indian wedding coming up and that I was reluctant to buy a new outfit for the occasion she invited me over to her house. What followed was an extremely warm and inviting visit that included the obligatory wonderful Indian hospitality and the best Indian food I have tasted so far. Like a teenage girl preparing for a first date I was squeezed into and out of countless gorgeous traditional Indian suits and dresses and paraded for my friends and her mother. It was decided that one outfit for an Indian wedding would not be sufficient so I left with three of my friends outfits in hand, some bangles, a bowl of popcorn from a neighbour for the bus ride home, and a picture for my hostel room along with countless cough lollies from my friends doting pharmacist fiancĂ©.
I have promised to return again soon with Brent for another dose of Indian hospitality and I have promised my body I will join a gym should the trips to friends' houses continue. Indian hospitality is hard to match!