We had a whole family meeting after the pressure valve blew apart last week (not repeating it here but you can read last week’s posts on Tough Living for context), and we have decided to stay in Buldana until my parents (Pete & Rob) arrive for their pre-booked 14-day stay from 4-16 March. All of us are very excited and happy to seeing them since leaving Australia and our families on 19 December last year. We are spending two weeks with them in Buldana, but the girls still have lingering concerns on their ability to make it through to the very end of our nine weeks here after they leave. So we’ve agreed to check in again after ,y parents leave and see how we’re all doing. At that point it will mean only two weeks to complete here. I think it’s doable with the usual ups and downs associated with living in such a rural place.
The Ajanta Caves
In my last post I didn’t mention our Sunday visit to the 2000 years-old Buddhist Ajanta Caves which are UNESCO heritage protected. Dr Moses organised a volunteer to drive the car for a day to travel there and back. One of the biggest hurdles here is that there is no formal or semi-formal tourist industry established here in Buldana. Not one thing! Road and shop signs are in Marathi, and trustworthy and proficient drivers who can navigate the chaos on the roads are few and far between. We have been approached and asked many times by inquisitive locals, “Why are you here? What is the purpose of your visit?” Because there’s not much here to attract a family of foreigners for such an extended stay! But we are here and we drop by the petrol station with Bohoka in the driver’s seat and fill the petrol tank up and we are ready to explore caves. Amazingly, the cost of petrol/diesel here is the same price as Australia which is crazy knowing the stark difference in the standard of living.
It took us an hour to reach the Ajanta caves due to avoiding potholes and bumps which make the journey more dangerous in avoiding tuk tuks, motorbikes, trucks, tractors, bullocks and carts, and of course locals walking along the road or even groups of people forming small congregations on and to the side of the road. The road is a busy place and unlike our roads back in home in Australia, they are in use by ALL modes of transport – machine, human, animal. I think we had two near misses. It’s a common occurrence and when you’re here you understand why. The stares we receive on the outskirt twons of Buldana are even more intense, even we’re seated in a moving vehicle making our way through a township, our skin must illuminate out from the windows and attract the Indian eyes.
I’m told by many Indians that we represent a God to many of the Hindu Indians. They all want to touch our hands, some children came to the door of our apartment the other day wanting to know (again) “what is your name?”, “what is your daughter’s name?”, “what is your age?”, “what is your last name?”, but this one threw me, “what is your caste?” No, these young Indian school children are not Indian spies in the making with their 10 standardised questions at each chance meeting, but as with learning any foreign language it’s confronting when you don’t know how to say anything else other than the few sentences you can reel off the top of your head in person. So they stood outside out apartment metal door holding a baby questioning me. I ask if the baby was their brother or sister (can’t tell baby’s gender here by just looking at them) and they told me it was “my friends baby brother”. I have also learnt to keep the thick steel screen security door closed, as they are quite pushy and stubborn and refuse to leave once they’re in. Anyway, the purpose of this story was to share with you that the girl grabs the baby’s hand and pushes it through the gap between the steel bars so that I could touch the baby’s hand. It’s seen as god-like good luck touch which will bring prosperity to the family. Steve has the same experience – being invited to his shop keeper’s homes for dinner. It’s a lovely gesture, but unfortunately a huge health risk as we don’t know how hygienically they cook their food, plus they use tap water which we don’t drink.
Anyway back to the caves…
Entry into the Ajanta Caves costs 500 rupee for adult foreigners over the age of 15 years ($10) and Indians 30 rupee (60 cents). To date, and understandably, no one believes that our four daughters are 11, 12 and 15, 16. For some reason, Steve tells the ticketing man in the booth behind the glass that Charlie is 15 and Ash is 14. I walk away shaking my head, thinking this is going to backfire and waste more time. We are used to having a stern discussion at the ticket counter anyway as all the girls who are taller than me and look older than they actually are anyway. We have been able to prove their ages by pulling out passports which gets us through. But for some reason Steve, who must be picking up on the Indian ways, decided to argue the point. He won. Not sure how, but we were handed the tickets and commenced our climb up the steps in the warm air, our leg muscles contracting and heart pumping as we make the steep climb.
Complaints are leaking out from our whole and healthy children to pay for a doli – a padded chair that is carried by four porters – up the stairs to the caves. They cost 1,000 rupees ($20) each plus porter fees and are predominantly used by elderly people or the rich. I laugh at their request and we continue climbing. We reach the top entrance to the caves where we are cleared for security checks and ticket scanning. Most of the UNESCO protected sites have proper ticketing systems with a barcode on the paper ticket that is scanned and keeps track of numbers of visitors to the site. Again we are questioned about the age of the children, especially Ash…I watch their faces as they stand blinking in disbelief. After creating some jocularity around the age issue with Steve saying, “they all tall like me” and then me being silly and poking my head in amongst it all and saying, “me the mum, and me the short one!” the guards are still perplexed like they’ve just witnessed a magic trick. We manage to get through the ticket checking post and leave the guards conversation trailing behind us.
The Ajanta Caves are an amazing display of about 30 Indian rock-cut (creating a structure out of solid rock) monuments with paintings on many of the walls and ceilings. Just being there and realising how long they have been here, especially coming from young white Australia being first discovered in 1606 and then with British sovereignty in 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet. I can’t believe we do not showcase and teach more Australians about our 40,000-70,000 history of Aboriginal history. It’s a terrible oversight to our culture and our first peoples. But here I am with my family standing inside the naturally cool Ajanta caves and their intricately rock-cut monuments that existed in the second century – 200BC! WOW!!!
There are running taps for the Indian visitors to refresh their dry mouths at the caves, but no safe bottled water for us to buy and drink to cool our overheated bodies. More complaints from the kids, and some refusing to share water with each other. Nothing new – we could be on Mount Macedon having the same argument! We stand in the shaded spots and linger longer in the caves themselves, emerging with a little more energy to walk to the next cave in the intense western setting sun. I can also appreciate the girls getting bored at these kinds of historical places too. That was me when I was there age but the older I get the more curious I am of history, timelines and people. But right at this moment, like the kids, I am very thankful for the shade.
We walked all the way to the end of the mountain rock caves and into the last cave that houses a sleeping Buddha – a long rock-cut Buddha lying down on the side of an internal cave wall. Simply breathtaking. Its carvings seem effortlessly cut out, smooth and perfect. Seeing this reminds me again how very lucky we are to be able to travel to different countries of the world and experience such unique and centuries old history. That feeling of gratefulness floods me and I feel like I’m on top of the world at the Ajanta Caves.
Distance Ed: Taking Curriculum on the Road
I thought it would be remiss of me to not mention what we are doing most mornings of each weekday (and some afternoons) – school! We are not home schooling, or world schooling but we decided to play it safe and enrol the kids into a local online education program called Distance Education Centre Victoria (DECV). This learning follows the Victorian Curriculum for each of the four girls’ year levels (Grade 6, Year 7, Year 10, and Year 11/12). The one condition that is expressed at the start of taking on the program is the requirement of having reliable internet. Ha!
There have been quite a few glitches to the smooth operation of taking school on the road for our family that we have had to manage and troubleshoot. And the reality of not having just one or two children to support and supervise in their online learning, but FOUR children is, to tell it truthfully, downright overwhelming and daunting. The first week of school was exciting: getting to know subject and homeroom teachers via email, completing an online orientation program, and getting used to waking earlier than we had been (like in any summer break) and getting online with a time difference 5.5 hours behind Australia. Okay cool so far.
Then the second week arrived, and we thought we had online schooling in the bag. Our Australian visitor Dr James Wei also arrived at the start of that week for five short and intense days, which meant Steve and I (the supervisors) were absent for some afternoons while we attended Board discussions with Dr Moses around his NGO CBHP (Community Based Health Project) and its future of delivering health care and education to the poor and marginalised of rural Buldana. The girls were doing a great job trying to manage their work and keep up, but we discovered in the third week of Dist Ed that there was much more to the unfamiliar Learning Management System (LMS) than we first realised. In hindsight, I can see that the girls were transitioning from having their school work delivered in a classroom environment with a teacher explaining concepts to now an online environment where EVERYTHING needed to be read, understood and then attempted and submitted by THEM!
This week has been spent sitting with the girls, especially Dacey, at their desks and going through their subjects and understanding the LMS and getting my/their head/s around it all. It’s become quite a beast to conquer this week and the girls are all not liking, nor enjoying, their online learning program. It has also been difficult for Steve and me to take in all the different year level subjects and understand what work is to be submitted and when. It’s all over the place, and differing as Dacey submits Maths and English work every fortnight, but all her other subjects are submitted weekly and Billie submits work once she’s completed it. This week has been a frustratingly steep learning curve just getting to the place of being familiar and confident of knowing how everything works across four school year levels.
One thing is for sure I am learning how to use many different apps to make our life easier. Using scanning apps to take photos in batches of pages of work and then scanning them and sending to teachers using Tiny Scanner or Genius Scanner. Air Drop works wonders with us all having Apple products (except Steve who is an Android user), online programs like Mathletics, Spellodrome will come in handy, and of course getting my head around Google drive and docs. It’s an amazing labyrinth of technology that I am being forced to understand and use.
I sensed quickly that the kids were struggling with 100% of the learning material being online. It’s been a very intense and unfamiliar learning environment for all of them, especially for Ash and Dacey who have been struggling most. I found a photocopy place up Chikhali Road and saved all the English and Maths workbooks to a USB and printed these workbooks off for Term 1 for just 1,000 rupees ($20). Another problem is that the two younger girls are working from an iPad which doesn’t allow much scope for opening PDFs or Word documents as easier as it would if they worked from a laptop, let alone filling out the answers to questions, and then submitting them. Billie had been rewriting all the questions into an exercise book, and then scanning and sending it to her teachers via the LMS. We’ve stopped that doubling up thank goodness by working from printed workbooks and submitting the required submission material. I’m more than a little disappointed that we didn’t get all the girls a lap top now with more options to save and complete their school work. Oh well…
We have to deal with it as best as we can this week. There were lots of gripes about the amount of content to cover as we were really catching up in each subject which is understandable. And this is a lot more personally demanding on their time than I think any of us realised. I have sat alongside Dacey all this week, helping her catch up on her Grade 6 work and submissions. I’m now hoping we are entering next week with fewer concerns as all of us will be more familiar with how Distance Ed works and what is expected. I am determined to make it work as best we can while we’re travelling, and my goal is that by the end of first term, the girls will have transitioned from teacher-classroom dependent learning to a more student-supervisor independent learning. Here’s hoping…rant over!
PS The one benefit of learning on the road is finding the gems along the way. Dacey’s Grade 6 Science subject was looking at how science in her life has made her life better in some way. She chose to discuss the intricate water purifier that is installed here at our apartment, Dwarka. It’s a system of tubes and cylinders that works by allowing us to drink water from the tap while we stay here. Looks like something more from a spaceship than here. And in her English class the students were asked to write a letter to their teacher. As we were planning the letter about her travelling so far, I asked her what was the most favourite part of the trip. I was expecting her to say the jet ski rides in Langkawi Island on Christmas Day, but instead she told me that saving Roadie Monday, the street pup, and bringing him back to health has been the best part of the trip so far. God love her!
Happy Birthdays x 2
On Monday this week we celebrated Bohoka’s 26th birthday together at our apartment. The volunteers brought the food – dahl, rice, chicken dish and a crunchy vegetable salad (it was so yum!) and we supplied the venue and party atmosphere – Dacey was in charge of decorations: balloons, party hats, card, and Steve had purchased a cake. Dr Moses and his sister Varsha and her husband Sohus came over too for the celebrations. Birthdays are quite different here, as you could imagine. After a little while of playing tug of war with Roadie on the floor, the volunteers got the prepared food out and placed it on the lounge floor. This is how they usually eat and with their hand as the utensil scooping up the food by clumping the rice with the other food together.
They do not give presents, but we had cake! And we all sang the happy birthday to Bohoka. Then in Indian tradition we all picked up a piece of cake with our fingers and smudged it over his face as well as fed it to him as a birthday wish gesture and bit of fun. Great night with the Buldana crew and we managed to get an awesome photo of all of us too – including Roadie!
On Sunday night we celebrated another of the volunteer’s birthdays – volunteer driver Mapuia’s 31st birthday and we all went out to a local restaurant called Gymkhana for a meal. More great food, I actually ate way too much rich, spicy Indian food, and birthday cake. More smearing and feeding of cake to each other and then it was home to get some much needed sleep. It’s been a great bonus having the volunteers here in Buldana to hang out with and get to know. I think we don’t realise how much we might miss this unique place and the people.
Weekend Away with Volunteers
Charlie and Ash have gone away for the weekend with the four volunteers to the city of Aurangabad. They left on Friday and returned Sunday. Since the volunteers have been here (around 7 months) they have not had the opportunity or means to take some time away from Buldana and see other places nearby. While James was here he came up with an idea to send the four volunteers and our four children away for the weekend. Steve and I thought about it, and decided Billie and Dacey were too young to go on such an adventure. The idea was that they would have to research the place they wanted to stay at, the costs of undertaking the weekend trip on a budget of 10,000 rupees (which was generously donated to them by James). Friday was a Hindu holy day and therefore a public holiday, the preschool was closed which gave the volunteers an extra day up their sleeves to get away. Perfect! Now the budget. 10,000 rupees was never going to cut it. So Steve and Dr Moses contributed 5,000 rupees more each to make it a total of 20,000 rupees ($400).
Unfortunately, the volunteers are not that proactive when it comes to researching or organising a weekend away. It’s almost like their brains don’t function like that at all. On Thursday night two of the volunteers, Bohoka and Vito came to our apartment and asked “are we going to Aurangabad?” We replied with, “Where are you staying? What is the budget? Do you have enough money?” They had no answers to any of the questions. So I helped them out a bit and made some calls to Moses and Avenish. Long story short, we found great accommodation that was safe, and Dr Moses had an uncle that lived on the same road as the hotel they were staying at. It takes about 4 hours to travel by car to Aurangabad, so it’s a bit of a commitment sitting in a car all that way and back. Dr Moses’ uncle could be their tour guide and helper if required which made us feel more comfortable. This weekend was to be a perfect opportunity to spilt the kids up and enjoy some much needed time apart.
They had a great time – visited the mall (just like Highpoint where they got to eat some fast food and do some window shopping), visit the Mini Taj and a zoo. I warned them about the reality of going to a zoo in India, which they understood once we visited one for themselves. All zoos in Asia I believe should not be allowed to operate as it is a form of animal cruelty at its most public. Glad Dacey didn’t go there. I think most of all they appreciated getting out of the burnt rural landscape for a weekend and staying in the concrete jungle. They also got a taste of what it is like to organise everything for a trip – money, passports, checking in and filling out copious amounts of paperwork, and making sure there is toilet paper in the bathroom! Great experience for the teens.
An update on our spending and how we’re going with year to date budget. Many people have asked me how do you plan for a year away financially especially for a family of six. My response is: save like crazy until you depart, give up lots of unnecessary luxuries (takeaway, alcohol, new clothes etc) and connect with other families travelling the world on social media and read lots of blog entries and research. So in our pre-departure planning we based our savings plan for the year away on a target of $200 per day for our family of six people (plus or minus of course).
Since departure day of the 19 December to Langkawi Island, where we celebrated Christmas, to flying to India and moving up the west coast via train and plane, we spent nearly double our daily budget goal – $392 per day. The reason: we were continually on the move from one city to the next and living in and out of hotel rooms as well as eating out for all meals. This means the costs of living/travelling add up quickly (incorporate also a mini holiday in Langkawi Island where we allowed ourselves to splurge a bit). The year of travel plan is to settle down and live within the local community during the Victorian school terms and rent for longer periods of time (approximately for three months) where we have access to a fully functional house. This pushes our cost of living/travelling down especially in regard to accommodation, transport and food expenses. The plan has always been to go with the flow of the peaks and troughs in the budget which hopefully will balance out in the end. Time will tell I’m sure. As of 9 February our daily cost of living since leaving Australia on 19 December dropped to $246 which is caused by settling down in rural India in an apartment, paying significantly cheaper rent, hardly any transport costs, and buying produce that we need for meals from supermarkets and fresh markets.
The costs will lower even more as we stay in Buldana for a total of 9 weeks and after that as Term 1 finishes and school holidays start we will move and explore in this school holiday period. At the moment we are completely immersed in the lifestyle here that is unique to Buldana – eating the local food, conversing with the local residents and business owners, purchasing items needed at our apartment and standing around waiting (just like the locals) as much as we possible (which is driving our western mindset nutty).
In many ways I can’t believe we have already been living here for one month, and in another I totally can. I often ask if we’re crazy for taking this on – 9 weeks in Buldana, a whole year away and being with each other 24/7? Most likely yes, with a healthy dose of interrupting the status quo, but only the crazy would tempt to pull something like this off wouldn’t they?
I’d like to make a special mention to all our family and friends who read my blog posts, thank you and to those readers who forwarded comments and kind words of support for us all to “hang in there” as we navigate in and around culture shock and cultural diversity. We are enjoying having you journey with us in a place that continually pushes all of us completely outside of our comfort zones and forces us dig deep with every new day. xx