We arrived to our overseas home base for the next 2 months/term 1, an apartment called Dwarka (a walk through later in this blog) in Buldana just after 8pm yesterday. It had been a mammoth train journey of 25 hours plus 3 hours of waiting around at a café located near the railway station in Delhi. But finally we had arrived to the place I had visited two years’ prior on my solo trip to India as a Volunteer Immersion Program Coordinator for Melbourne University. Back then, I had promised Dr Moses that I would return to Buldana, with my family, and stay and assist in his vision of providing basic health care and education to the marginalised and very poor people of rural India.
And here we were. We walked in and were greeted by Grace, who I met two years ago, and who supports Dr Moses when she can. Grace comes from the Indian state of Mizoram located in the northeast of India. Grace doesn’t look India – and like many of the Mizoram locals, she has more of a Thai- or Chinese-style facial features. The majority of the Mizoram population is Christian and pretty much runs to the beat of its own rhythm. Grace can communicate easily in English, and it’s a lovely respite to talk freely with someone rather trying to put basic words and jagged sentences together. And then Moses arrived and it felt so good to finally see him again in person and be able to introduce all my family to him.
If the train journey to get here was a mammoth journey, I don’t know what to call our first week living in rural India, Buldana. It’s been a rollercoaster of ups, downs, more downs, lots of frustration, tears, misunderstandings, sickness, tiredness, internet connectivity issues, cultural shock, and asking the question “why are we here exactly?” and “why would you think this place would be the place to stay for 2 months?”
If the India tourist circuit is confronting to us western earthlings, then the best way I can describe rural India is that it’s like being on planet Mars. Nothing works like you think it would. Not one thing. And how everything works, to me, is a pure miracle. Time and clocks are irrelevant even more so, the culture is conservative with women wearing saris and long sleeved items. The gender divide is massive with men occupying most of the public spaces – it’s very unusual to see women out at night, and married women do not have careers or jobs, rather they bear the brunt of household and family duties. Yet they still work, and many of their dependent children go to work with them. This means children play at worksites, on the side of the road while mum works breaking big rocks into smaller ones. It’s part of the reason why Dr Moses offers a preschool class – to teach the kids something useful like simple acts of hygiene, English, and order into their lives.
I thought I had this place worked out, but as it happened two years prior to solo traveller me, the enormity of the cultural and language divide has impacted us considerably and knocked us for six this first week. But the memories are flooding back to me the more I experience here. It seems everything here is both true and untrue at the same time. It’s a world of contradictions. It’s like joining the dots, but not in any logical order.
It is and it isn’t at once. The riddle of rural Buldana.
We have also had on top of all the country and cultural diversity another two sick kids this week, with me pulling an all-nighter with Dacey vomiting throughout the night, to major internet connectivity issues. For the girls to do any of their schooling through Distance Education Victoria, they need INTERNET. And it needs to be accessed by the four of them simultaneously. That’s quite a challenge here, well has been this week, and caused me much angst and another sleepless night trying to troubleshoot the situation. I had even considered worst case scenarios that our family may have to in fact leave Buldana for this reason. But we have managed to iron out the major creases here I think. Sickness is over with for now: no tummy cramps, no vomiting: TICK! Dr Moses purchased a dongle that would connect up to 31 people (hmmm already suspicious sounding) but it didn’t have the required speed for our uploads, so a wifi device was set up on the rooftop of the apartment building with high speed, and we are happy campers. The internet does go slow at around 10am, I’m assuming with increased traffic, but early morning it’s flowing freely. This means rising earlier to complete school work.
The girls have settled down finally, we’ve had some pretty intense talks and clashes about the standard of our accommodation (more on that later), what to do here for two months (we need to plan our Buldana itinerary for weeks 2-9), how can we eat this food (we’re working on that one), why do all the Indian people here stare at us (can’t change that), do we have to wear long pants when it’s hot? (yes you do in conservative rural India). This week has seen a resistance campaign rise, but then settle down with acceptance of where we are and what we’re doing. It’s always about the journey and never the destination.
We are living on the first floor apartment within an apartment building in a normal residential area in Buldana. It has two bedrooms, a kitchen and eating area, a lounge room with small balcony, a bathroom (with toilet and shower facilities) and a separate squat toilet (that no one uses unless the shower is being used). When I say ‘shower’ I mean yes we enjoy hot water (the only place to get hot water in the house is here) but the shower is manually operated: bucket. This took a little getting used to for the girls, and had Ash standing in the bathroom waiting for the shower to work (it doesn’t).
We are fortunate to have a water purifier and filter attached to the main kitchen tap (except one day this week the electrics within it caught fire, and we needed to get the electrician around to replace a part), so we are able to fill and drink water, like normal people from a tap and glass instead of always drinking from plastic bottles. The kitchen has a portable two-burner gas top, a small fridge, tables and chairs to sit at, and plastic and stainless steel crockery, servers, cutlery and cups and glasses. Our lounge room has a couch and two arm chairs, and a glass coffee table, and we have moved one plastic desk that was in located in the bedroom into the middle of the lounge area and purchased another three tables so we can set up a working area for the girls each morning and then stack them on top of each other when we’re finished. The balcony, now has some greenery on it after purchasing an array of different plants at the nursery the other day and we often sit there and watch the world go by along the main road. There is also a roof top, which has an amazing view of the sun when it sets.
The electrics of the apartment are a nightmare. With the amount of wires hanging outside it’s little wonder. But inside, we cannot touch the appliances while they are plugged in, even the hot water tap in the bathroom and the water are holding some electric current. So we have had to wrap tape around the handle so we can use it. Things are not old, just not professional installed. But it’s everywhere in India, and because we’re living here rather than passing through, we notice everything in our everyday life.
There is a door that opens from the kitchen to the side of the apartment. That’s where we do our hand washing and hang out wet items up to dry in the sun. It’s also where cows and pigs wait to be fed scraps over the side of the wall (Dacey is enjoying doing that!).
The reason we have this apartment is that Dr Moses rents it out permanently for his healthcare activities such as conducting village worker health training here in the lounge room. Dr Moses, who was born and raised in the Buldana area is committed to bringing basic healthcare to the marginalised and very poor of Buldana. This is where I stayed for a month with 9 other Melbourne University students two years ago for the volunteer immersion program.
We have fans, and some other mod cons such as a kettle, a toaster, and a microwave was delivered by one of the drivers yesterday. But overall it’s very basic. The shops around here stock lots of things and plenty of ingredients, so everything is prepared and cooked fresh (although we have managed to find some 2 minute noodles that are not too spicy and some cereals). I have learnt how to make chai tea and coffee using the buffalo milk that can be purchased at the shop around the corner in bags of 500ml or 1 litre. The milk needs to be boiled before consumed, and then cooled if used over cereal. This all takes time and nothing is instantaneous! The volunteers are assisting us with the cooking of breakfast/brunch and dinner, while we skip lunch and make do on our own.
Then there are the volunteers who assist Dr Moses teaching English language at his preschool called Vidya Niketan English Schhol (Vidya Niketan means house of education/knowledge). There are two young men: Bohoka (who picked us up at the railway station) and Vito, two young women called Abaioihi (pronounced Arboy) and Lapuii (pronounced Lapoy) and two male drivers. All the volunteers are not from Buldana nor this state. Arboy and Lapuii come from the state of Mizoram, and the others from Nagaland located on the India-Myanmar border region and part of India’s Northeast tribal states. They also look more Asian than Indian, and often local people here in Buldana ask them if they are South Korean. They are all in their early to mid 20s and have been volunteering here for 6 months (they leave in April to return home) and speak more English than Hindi, or the local language here Marathi. So they cannot understand what the pre-schoolers say in Marathi, but use English language as their common language to communicate with each other. It’s a strange set up.
They are all lovely people, and have volunteered with Dr Moses for 6 months and will return home or elsewhere in March. Arboy will continue to stay on, teaching the children and helping us out at Dwarka. She has been assigned to cooking for us while we are here which is nice, but I am more than happy to pay for a lady to come in and help cook (like we did last time with the Melb Uni students) but we tried one local lady who I fired after day two. She was hired to cook us chapattis (a local flat bread eaten with most meals) and help Arboy with cooking more local Indian cuisine. But she was quite an unfriendly woman, and with the absence of any local Marathi language knowledge from either Arboy or me, it just wasn’t working. The girls had tried the chapattis but it wasn’t something they wanted a lot of.
Arboy and Lapuii have been assigned to the Cole Family while we’re staying here, and this week as we have slowly and gradually got to know the two girls, I’m always checking in and making sure all is okay. And it seems to be. They seem content with helping others – whether that be assisting in a classroom or cooking for a foreign family. However, after nearly a week of eating paneer masala with green peas I asked Arboy if she could cook something else. The answer was quick and direct, “No!” I tried to get her to make a red paneer dish, and what I understood as “yes I will try” turned into another masala paneer with green peas. Don’t get me wrong it’s good wholesome food, but if I have to shell another bag of peas and then eat them each night for dinner next week, I’m definitely going to go crazy! So I had a word with Dr Moses, and the next morning both Arboy and her volunteer friend Lapuii arrived and announced that Lapuii would take over the cooking from now on as she can cook other types of Indian dishes.
BULDANA CULTURE & ENVIRONMENT
The Buldana environment is not the easiest of environments to integrate into. The process of acclimatisation is often accompanied by resistance, and we have all had to look deep into ourselves and accept the situation we are in for two months. Expectations are another killer to embracing the new and unfamiliar world here, and I had plenty which snowballed and finally popped on day 5. These expectations centred around my previous experience here. But back then I was on my own and had only myself to look after. Now there are five family members with me! It has also been more stressful than most of the trip so far due to the starting of the school year and having to organise all that’s required with that: creating a learning space for four kids, internet connection and speed, getting to know new teachers online with 5 ½ hour time differences, incorrect email addresses at DECV and getting access to portal. I know how hard it is to get kids back into school and routine after the summer holidays at home, and here we are in Buldana after a month of travelling in India trying to do the same with the added dilemmas of being in rural India. But I feel like we have crossed a bridge, and there is a sense of greater acceptance amongst the tribe, and a willingness to not let the environment or the culture impact us so easily. Hey it’s called going with the flow! But we have lived through the first week, and learnt how to move to the rhythm of the Buldana way of life. Let’s hope week two will be a little less confronting for us all.
There are no tourists here in Buldana, so being the only white people walking along the streets means we get a lot of attention (which drives the girls crazy at times). Stares are constant and requests for selfies are sometimes asked, but we are managing it better by refusing all selfies, and in regards to the staring, well it’s something we have to just ignore and keep going. We have been used to it while travelling to most other parts in India, but here it’s a little more intense and intrusive.
The weather in Buldana, however, is lovely – most days are late 20s to low 30s, sunny days with a lovely breeze; mornings are cool and a welcome delight into our apartment after it’s been locked up throughout the night. Sunday each week is market day – where all the stalls come out in force. We visited the market on Sunday, wandering down the road, taking it all in. We bought fresh fruits, some clothing (to blend in more if that’s at all possible), some more henna and then sat at our lassi cafe to regroup and make our way home to Dwarka via tuk tuk.
We have a cleaning lady, that doesn’t speak any English but we have managed to break through the language barrier with hand gestures. She also cleans Indian style – it’s not thorough, but it’s enough. She turns up at the door at any time of day, and if we’re not in she keeps returning until we open the door. She also hand-washes our clothes and hangs them out to dry. I’m feeling so lazy in this house…it’s wonderful! However, we do have some chores we are all expected to do: 1) tidy room and clothes off the floor (for the cleaning lady), 2) washing dishes (we have a daily roster on the fridge and we wash and rinse dishes in pairs), and 3) assisting with preparation of meals (cutting up vegies etc). There is no hot water in the kitchen, so the kettle has been handy boiling water for us to wash the dirty dishes. The Indians just clean all their dishes in cold water under a tap!
I look forward to the mornings. A new day, a fresh start. It’s also when our helpers start arriving to our apartment to assist with cooking and cleaning. It’s nice to see a friendly face that also doesn’t belong to our family. We are trying to get more time apart so we are not in each other’s pockets 24/7. Charlie and Ash caught a tuk tuk up to the supermarket the other day, and purchased some items for baking a chocolate slice, and Steve and I have been taking walks around the neighbourhood, leaving the girls in the apartment. Steve has made friends with some local boys who love playing cricket. So he has played tippetyrun with them a couple of times on a rough paddock littered with rocks and cow dung. He’s bought some bats and a ball and hopes to clean up the paddock so it’s a better playing surface. I have been able to meet some of the young girls who live around here and they came over and stayed for hours doing henna on the Charlie, Ash and my hands and arms. Their English is limited, but they are friendly girls.
One of the henna girls knocked at the door and handed the girls a rose saying, “you are beautiful!” While we were getting the henna done, I asked them their name, age and what they want to do for job or career. Many replied “police”, “engineer” (I think being an engineer in India is an automatic response from many Indian children). Their fathers’ have jobs – admin, truck driver, tailor. But when you ask about their mothers, their responses are all the same, “home”. Women here are not equal and its obvious. Well it’s obvious all over India, but acutely so in rural India. The social and cultural traditions prevent women thinking, behaving, yearning for what we western women think, behave, and yearn for. Marriage is the detriment to any of the women’s ability to build a career, or even have a paying job. The women still work, but take their children with them to work, which is not good for the kids. Melinda Gates says that if you really want to empower women across the globe, give them access to contraception. I agree. Patriarchal India has not catered to Buldana women and their needs for a better life, a better future.
The other issue we are currently dealing with is rubbish: no rubbish collection here. Bags of rubbish, tins, plastic and glass bottles are piling up outside the kitchen door, and I’m having to ask the volunteers to take the rubbish away each time as it’s attracting the ant population. It is obvious that rubbish here in rural India is not at all efficiently nor effectively dealt with waste ending up in vacant lots or burned off. The country is a dumping ground. What’s the solution? Dr Moses said that the government had initiated a rubbish collection service in Buldana not too long ago, and gave the job to an NGO or private operator, but the NGO has recently folded and rubbish collection/removal is again non-existent. It’s hard to believe the amount of waste accumulating for six people here, let alone for the entire population of Buldana.
We visited the pre-school on Friday, just the four of us (Steve, me, Charlie & Ash) as Billie and Dacey were still not feeling the best. They stayed back at Dwarka, while we met the preschool kids and saw the volunteer teachers in action. The preschool starts at 8:30am and finishes at 12:00pm. Some of the children here are as young as 2 years old and as old as 5 years old. This preschool offers English language to the marginalised and very poor of Buldana, and so many of the parents cannot pay for school fees or the bus to get their child/ren to and from the pre-school. Here these little ones learn for the very first time how to stay clean and hygienic by learning to wash their hands with soap and water before eating, how to stay clean, how to have some organisation in their life, how to speak and write the English language.
They are soooo cute and I’m super impressed at how they can sit and concentrate for so long. Many kids who come from the slum areas do not attend preschool as their parents just take them to work in the fields or beside the road with them or they’re left to hang about in the slum area waiting for their parents return. Next week we are going to go out to where they live and see the conditions.
Overall we survived our first week living in rural India. It’s a challenge living here on all fronts, but nonetheless an amazing insight into the way of life for millions of rural Indians for us. We are here for 9 weeks, and depending on how we’re feeling on the day it’s sometimes perceived as a small amount of time to spend in a place that not many of our family and friends back home will ever know or come to understand. On the other, 9 weeks feels so long to be here, but we manage the creeping overwhelm by being present to the day we’re in, and then we deal with the next. Digesting just one day at a time. As long as we are safe and healthy, happiness rises and sets like the sun.