First impressions and training in Chennai

ICS Q13 India

We arrived in Chennai in the early morning and were treated to a beautiful sunrise whilst being eaten alive by mosquitoes just outside the entrance to arrivals.The buses coming to collect us were running late and so we waited somewhat patiently in heat that I could never have dreamed of for 5 o’clock in the morning. When the buses eventually arrived it took quite a while to load all of our baggage on – I think the staff had underestimated how big and how many suitcases we all had. Of course, this meant that multiple bags were lifted up onto the roof and precariously balanced. The bus journey itself was only around 45 minutes and the time passed quickly. We passed through the outskirts of Chennai and were treated to plenty of blaring horns and multiple cows roaming the streets.

When we arrived at the accommodation we started to unpack. I shared a room with Becky To, Becky Th, Keaton and Catherine. We were in the main room of a flat and the three bedrooms coming off it were reserved for our national counterparts when they arrive. The bathroom was much better than I expected as we actually had a western toilet – hurrah! We had a bucket shower which itself was quite refreshing but the bathroom got really hot so it was uncomfortable to be in there for too long.

Training lasted 10 days including a shopping trip and a trip to the beach on the Saturday. The Nationals arrived the day after us and we had a small welcoming ceremony where we placed sandalwood on each other’s foreheads – supposedly if you place cool sandalwood on the centre of your forehead on top of a main artery it cools your whole body down but I won’t know for sure until I do head & neck anatomy next year! We were also given jasmine garlands to either put in our hair or wrap around our wrist and then we were given some sugar to eat. That evening we were taken to a temple down the road from us. We arrived around dusk and the colours looked so vibrant.

Training consisted of lots of games for both team building and for energising the group and lots of group activities. My highlights include a game were we were split into three groups and were put in the three corners of the room. One group was mute, my group was blind and one group was on celebrity island – the place where we all needed to be. However the celebrities were tied together and unable to move. Oh and I forgot to mention that between us were shark infested waters that could only be crossed on cardboard! The three groups had to communicate to get pieces of cardboard that were located in front of the blind people to allow everyone from the blind and mute islands to cross the water to the celebrity island. The game required a lot of team work, careful communication and of course lots of imagination. We learned some more NFE (non-formal education) teaching techniques such as the use of small street dramas called skits, radio & song and puppet shows. The group I was in produced a skit about the dangers of cell phone use. It included the obvious such as not using your cell phone whilst driving so we had a road accident between a car and a motorbike (I made up one half of the car) as well as an accident between a pedestrian and a motorbike but the skit also included some unusual yet hilarious situations. These included a surgeon answering his phone mid operation which caused the patient to have a heart attack and die, a groom picking up his phone followed by the bride and then finally the priest until there was no one left at the wedding and a funeral procession where the dead man received a phone call, came back to life and then ran off! Another highlight included a discussion about gender inequality where we asked the Nationals about their lives and they asked us about ours through Karthik. It gave us a real insight into how girls our age live out here including how they cannot leave their house after dark even though their brothers can and how boys can get grants for further education but girls cannot. I had known a fair bit about the gender inequality issues that exist in India before I came out but hearing the stories of my peers here brought home a new realness to the situation.

Throughout the training I was taught to dance like a ‘Tamil Girl’ which was of course extremely fun. I’m always up for a good dance and on one occasion the whole room was just watching my imitation of a professional Tamil dancer. I’m sure witnessing this was highly entertaining! We had an evening of culture exchange which included lots of singing, a video by Becky To of British comedy and of course we ended with 2 ceilidhs dances – the Gay Gordon’s and my personal favourite Strip the Willow. I was treated to beautiful henna when Koti agreed to do some on me and she ended up covering both my arms on both sides. I was told afterwards that women only get henna like this when they are getting married. I also set up a yoga club where I attempted to teach some other international some sun salutations. It was much harder than I thought it would be. We practiced in the evenings on the roof when there was a nice breeze. Even then it wasn’t hard to work up a sweat. One night it started raining really heavily as we were in camel pose which felt so liberating it was amazing. I’m looking forward to establishing a better practice once I reach my community and settle in.

The shopping trip was stressful to say the least. We went on one of the busiest days of the week, Saturday, and the shops and streets were crawling with people. On top of this we were time restricted which made for some quick decisions. I bought some ready made salwars, some bracelets and some bindis. I didn’t get a saree but I’ve been assured that there will be plenty more opportunities to get one in the near future. After shopping we all had lunch in a really nice and green park before heading to the bus station to go to the beach. A few of us missed the first bus and ended up waiting half an hour for the next one to arrive. We all got seats on it but it took another 40 minutes for it to actually leave the bus station! We did eventually make it to the beach and I did get into the sea up to my waist whilst fully clothed! Most of the volunteers left but a few of us stayed to play some volleyball. By the time we left it was getting dark and we hit rush hour traffic on the bus back. All in all though it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip. I cannot wait to wear my new outfits soon!

During training we split into health and livelihoods groups to get some more information of what we’ll be teaching. Unfortunately for me there isn’t actually as much focus on sexual and reproductive health as I had hoped. The main focus at the moment is on vector-borne diseases and raising awareness about the three main ones – malaria, dengue fever and filaria. We will be teaching prevention techniques to try and decrease the number of deaths they cause every year. We will also be touching on sanitation and hopefully helping some individuals to get a government grant to build a toilet. Open defecation is also a really big issue at the moment in india. Other topics include waste management where we will try to create compost bins and kitchen gardens which use waste water from washing up as their source of water. This provides the communities with yummy vegetables and also gets rid of stagnant water which is a breeding ground for mosquitoes – hitting two birds with one stone. I am looking forward to doing needs assessments once we are in our communities to see exactly what is is we need to be teaching.

On our penultimate day of training we found out which groups we will we working with and where we will be staying. I have been placed in Kanchipuram with Becky Th, Leah and Jodie who will be doing Livelihoods with Abi, Kavi and Yuvi Raj and Holly, Jonny and myself will be working with Hari, Ruth and Shobana on Health. We have two team leaders, Fay and Michael Jackson. I will miss the daily trips to the juice shop for extremely fresh, cold juice and I hope I find somewhere nearby where I can get hold of cold juice. We are the most remote group and so my hopes are not too high.

The atmosphere is both similar and yet strikingly different to that of Nepal and I can’t quite place my finger on what makes it this way. The shops all sell the same things and look identical. The traffic is much heavier but then we are in a major city. If Nepal were a gentle drive on a Sunday afternoon then India is Monday morning rush hour mayhem. Where we are in Chennai is like a spread out version of Kathmandu. It is much bigger and busier than Besisahar and yet more relaxed than Kathmandu. I am excited to get to Kanchipuram to see what it is like there and to get settled into our community.

I hope you are all well!

Lots of love,

Em xx