Cobras and Cake

   March 2017

We've been living in Hyderabad nearly seven months now. Seven sunkissed, life-altering months. It feels like a small lifetime. Unlike in the beginning when we'd mark every milestone, we've stopped counting the days. Every milestone brings us closer to the day when we'll have to leave this place, and honestly, that's not a day I even want to think of. I know I say it every time, but I really can't put into words the love I have for this place and the people who are a part of my life here.

In the beginning, there were things from home I wished I could have here, and now after so many months the same can be said about my Indian home. There are so many parts of this journey, people and places I wish I could copy and paste back into my Scottish life; to keep them with me forevermore. Like our students and our friends, the people we've become so close to, or the way Joseph, my favourite security man, always says "good night." The nurses making us feel loved by running to hug us or shouting good morning the moment we walk into the canteen. Exploring Hyderabad with Obi and his spontaneous we-finished-early-so-lets-go-get-ice-cream trips. Yamuna's laugh and our conversations with Chaitanya on all subjects.  Little things I will always carry onto. Here, we are all family. These friends are also my brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunties.

In just two weeks my real family will be here, here in India, and I'm caught somewhere between being insanely excited and not actually able to believe it. When we used to talk about them visiting, long before I'd even left Scotland, it seemed so far away. They weren't coming until April. Yet, suddenly the month that felt the furthest away not that long ago is almost here, and it's bringing my favourite people along with it.  I think it might be strange to watch my two lives, my two families, my two countries collide. To watch how they react to one another. I don't know what will be stranger, having them here or having to watch them leave, but I am determined to enjoy every moment. I wonder if the stories I've told and the pictures I've painted in these blogs and letters home will have created expectations about this place and if the real deal will live up. I can only hope to have done these people and places justice.

Of course, there are also things I'm glad only exist here; like the massive cobra found hiding behind the fire extinguisher this morning, which I found about as I came downstairs, just to hear the girls standing in the doorway shout "ANNIE STOP! SNAKE! STOP! COOOBBRRRAAAA!"  Not exactly the most relaxing start to my morning. I must have jinxed it because just the night before I'd been talking to my friends from home about snakes and said I hadn't come into contact with any, and then, twelve hours later I'm standing inches away from one with the warden and moving slowly. (GAH. GAH. GAHHHHHH. India you can be so dramatic at times.) Not to worry though,  as it was quickly knocked unconscious with a stick and taken away.

The second weekend in March it is our friend Sunny's birthday, so we hold a surprise party for him in the grandest of places – the "restricted area" of the fifth floor - with all it's looming shadows, metal roofs and whirring fans. But, once we'd added an insane amount of colourful balloons, friends and cake, it wasn't such a bad place to have a party after all. He is lured upstairs under the guise of a optometrists meeting, and he is genuinely surprised. As is Indian tradition he gets half the cake spread all over his face and it's really funny. Unlike at home where everyone gets a neat little slice and cake lasts for days, here it is enjoyed instantly. On his actual birthday, the next day, we went to Wonderla which is a huge theme & water park in Hyderabad. Eight of us went: Sunny, Alex, RK, Sagita, Ankur, Nayan, Indesh and me. Although some of the rides were genuinely terrifying - one of them hung you upside down so even with the big plastic belt thing on I was convinced I might fall out and some of them span so fast there were a fair few people throwing up after coming off, we had the best time.

We went to the theme park side in the morning and in the afternoon we went into the water. Although we still had to go in fully clothed, unlike ocean park, in Wonderla they have a rule on what kind of clothes you can wear - nylon or polyester - so the clothes we'd brought with us were no use and we all had to buy suitable clothes. This made us look like some bizarre football team but as always it was a good laugh. Wonderla was also a lot bigger and fancier, with more water slides and a really cool rain dance. In ocean park the rain dance was outside, and was just big showers with some background music, but in Wonderla it was in a specially designed dark room on the second floor with cool lights and moving water and better music. It was awesome. I guess the best compliment I can give Wonderla is that I spent a whole day there and still didn't manage to do it all. We went to four seasons for dinner afterwards and I was so exhausted after a day well spent that I slept the whole way home.

We've started teaching our new classes and it feels routine in the best possible way. Although it means our days are stuffed to the brim once again, with four or five classes everyday,  I feel more like a teacher now than I ever have and I know it shows.  It's hard to picture leaving when you've finally found your feet.  We teach from Monday to Saturday, 8:30am - 6pm, getting the bus back to the hostel at 7:30pm and finally arriving home at twenty-to-nine every night, but it's become so routine that it doesn't even feel late to me. I find it funny how such a drastic change to my routine so easily became the new normal. Thankfully, all the new classes are going well so far. Even though the new batch of VTs means we're back to early morning starts, there are only 40 students in the new batch (compared to the 70+ from a few months ago)  and my biggest struggle is learning all the new names.

Our new ONAs are completely different to what we were expecting. Unlike the last girls they act older, and much more serious. Two of them are married with little children and the atmosphere in the class is totally different. Although they are lovely and hardworking and sweet, the playful spirit of the old pinkies feels worlds away. We don't have the full class yet though, so perhaps it will be different when they all arrive this week. We've also been taking our eye bank class, who despite the very strange setting and the fact that for the hour everyone stands around a table, leaning on each others backs and such like, are hilariously good fun to teach. I suppose not many people get to say they teach english in Asia's biggest eye-bank (a fact we've recently learned) so that's pretty cool. One of the boys has been nicknamed Scrubs as that's what he often comes to class wearing (surgical mask and all!) Another one of our students has got into his head that I'm Spanish and not Scottish and so picked up my phone one day, saw the background picture of me with Paul, Luke and Tom in their kilts, and exclaimed "Ah, some real Spanish gentlemen!" We finish our days by teaching the DEHM administrators-in-training and having snacks at Vinky's, although because it's lent and I'm trying not to snack as much I'm pretty sure his profits have fallen dramatically.

Eye-Bank trainees

the new ONAs

For lent this year I've given up crisps. I thought that would be easy enough; despite the fact that I'm sort-of, basically obsessed with the things. See "chips" as they are called here are so insanely cheap (the biggest bag is 20 rupees, the little bags are 5 rupees!!) that they've become my snack of choice, and I eat waayyy too many. I go to the shop up the road in Darga and the man has my bags laid out, waiting for me on a Sunday afternoon, I'm that predictable.  So, I think a crisp free lent will do me good. That being said; do you ever decide to go off something for lent, then realise all that it entails? You see, when I vowed off crisps for lent, I forgot that would count the ones served with dinner… arguably the best part of the meal. So, my chip-free lent has been harder than I was anticipating!

 One of the biggest lessons I think I've learned this lent is that you need the people you surround yourself with to lift you up and support you when it comes to your faith.  We must all learn what we believe first, and then find others who will support that. For the first time, this year, I feel entirely certain of my faith. I don't have mum or dad trying to get me out of bed for mass on Sundays, I find myself awaking and walking to mass each Sunday morning because I really want to. Although Alex doesn't often come to mass with me, she'll still wake me up if she realises I've slept through my alarm. Although my Indian friends include atheists, hindus, muslims and those who believe in something but aren't quite sure what it is yet; they respect what I believe and like talking about it in ways that make you realise the similarities in all our religions and what we believe.

One of the things I really adore about India, and Indian culture, is how all religions have their own place here. Each are respected, and it is not unusual to see those religions overlap. The three main ones are Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. We fall asleep and rise every morning to the sound of sung prayers rising through the air from the nearby mosque, there are Hindu temples all over the place (whether you're in the middle of the motorway or at the top of Golkonda Fort) and you see people observing their faiths in so many different ways. A lot of the younger people in the hostel, although they will not claim to belong to any religion, will still bow and pray silently before their meals. Having grown up surrounded by a variety of religions, they will say "I am not Hindu, I am not Christian, I am not Muslim, but I believe in God. Of course I believe in God." We have a lot of interesting conversations about our beliefs these days.

For this reason, a lot of my friends here in India attend Rock Church every Sunday, which is why it was the church they first took us too when we arrived. Rock Church is a pentecost church in the village, and it is very much the community church. People of all different religious beliefs and all walks of life will attend rock church. The pastor drives around in a white van on Sunday evenings with a bumper sticker declaring that he's "DRIVING FOR JESUS" , and picks everyone up and brings them to church. It is like going to see a band. Guitarists, a drummer, a keyboard player who sings and his backup singers. It's a very big hall, but it is very plain and in the middle of being renovated. Hymns are sung in Hindi, Telugu and English before a bible study takes place. The first time we went, just after we arrived, of course we stood out like sore thumbs as the only white people. Still, the pastor picked us up at 5pm, asked us who we were and where we were from and inside the church introduced his two scottish friends to the community and told them why we were in India. A woman called Gina invited us for dinner and lent us her bible. A Telugu preacher was there and so the keyboard player came down, pulled up a chair and acted as a translator. The next time we went, mass was followed by a birthday party. We received an extremely warm welcome at Rock Church. I have not been to rock church in months, yet walking to the shop it is not uncommon for someone to stop and ask "Annie! how are you? I've missed you at church!" 

One of the main reasons why I stopped attending Rock Church, was that in October I found the catholic church in the village- Don Bosco. I still find it extremely comforting and familiar to go to mass each Sunday as it's the same! Just like home! On the weeks when India has me feeling a bit down or a little homesick, going to mass is really comforting. Something else I often thought about but neglected to mention, is that apart from the statue of Don Bosco, the other two statues in the church are of St. Anthony and the Sacred Heart. For those of you who didn't know this, those are the two saints my family prayed to while my mum was pregnant with me. Having grown up well aware of the role those two played in me even coming into the world, I like to see their presence as a wee reminder that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be right now.


Despite that little reassurance, there is one thing about Don Bosco that baffles me completely.  Although I'm the only white person and even in my Indian clothes stick out like a sore thumb, NO ONE speaks. Literally, no one speaks to me. I find this extremely strange, especially after the welcome we got at Rock Church and the fact that most Indians assume I'm around 11 years old. If I saw a young Indian girl alone in church at home, I would like to think people would speak to her and welcome her to the community, even if just out of blatant curiosity. The first time I assumed it was because the mass had been in Telugu, and the people around me might not have any English, but having been attending the English mass in the months since, I've had to rule that out. The sense of community I've always known back in Holy Family (hello everyone- I miss you!) is missing here.  Don Bosco, which in contrast to Rock Church is very ornately decorated and seems to attract the more wealthy of the community (at least it seems that way to me - as they are so antisocial I cannot be entirely certain.) Never-the-less, the masses are still lovely and we get a lot of visiting priests from across India, which can lead to some interesting sermons and a variety of views. The first Sunday of Lent, everything the priest said had to be repeated back to him, and then everyone had to clap. For example "Jesus, he died to save us all! What did Jesus do? Yes, he died to save us all! Now everyone clap hands for Jesus!!" I do love Jesus, but there was more clapping than could be found at a school prize giving and I could no longer feel my hands by the time he was finished.

Mass in India isn't exactly the same. Shoes are left outside the door, people don't tend to genuflect but give a low bow and the sign of peace  is the "namaste" bow (hands joined) rather than a handshake. Half-an-hour after each mass is spent listening to the priest read out the marriage bans. "There has been a proposal of marriage between so and so of this parish and so and so of that parish; if you know of any reason why this match is unsuitable… it is your duty to inform the parish priest" All I'm going to say is that there are A LOT of engagement proposals. Some women are very traditional and still cover their hair, while many come in completely western dress.

Our Ash Wednesday was pretty entertaining. Mass at Don Bosco was completely packed; in that all the seats were taken and there were a lot of people standing outside, so it was lucky we had arrived early. Then when we came back from mass with our ashes- mine was of the forehead covering, big-blob-that-kind-of-looks-like-a-star variety and Alex's, although nearly perfect had been accidentally smudged. Our students reactions ranged from staring at us as if "do they know they have big black smudges on their face and should I tell them?" or "annie mam, what happened to your face?" to the one person who did know what day it was running at me and saying "HAPPY ASH WEDNESDAY!" Yet, it meant I was able to explain my religion to them, and all about lent, which many of them had never heard of. They were all really interested in finding out about it too. It was one of those moments I wish I had documented, as I was sitting with one of my muslim students, one who is a hindu and the three of us had a visible make of our different religions on.

So, March is going well so far. I'm surviving the loss of crisps, the arrival of summer and the resultant abundance of power cuts, as well as encounters with snakes.  More than anything, I just can't wait to be reunited with my favourite people over the next two months and hope they fall in love with India as much as I have.





















































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