Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Constant Gardener

The Headteacher at Apple Kids was telling me yesterday how systematic Seth is. He has particular ways of doing this, places he keeps things and everything is ordered and very precise. I was thrilled with this news - he may turn out like his Aunt Boney who is one of the neatest people I know. Maybe he'll organise Ollie and me?

Actually, I think most toddlers are like this, as they try to order their little world. Seth won't start a meal or even a snack until everything is as he wants it. Knife, fork, spoon, glass of water. Cutlery has to be exactly straight, even if he then dives in and eats with his hands.

He can disappear for long periods of time to water the plants at Sui House. This is a complicated operation. Various types of containers are needed. First they need to be lined up, first in size order, and then moved around for some other reasons unknown to us, perhaps pulling one out so it's in front of the others, or moving the largest one to one side. He works in complete silence and in deep concentration attending to his plants. I can sit next to him and watch the whole thing and I suspect he doesn't even know I'm there.

Weaving Roots

An exhibition at Kashi Art Cafe, by my friend Meghna Singh.

Bo's big escape

Me: Bo, I have to tell you something. I've found a lady who's going to look after you in the afternoons, instead of me...

Bo: YAY!!

Me: Don't say yay! You should be really sad and not want to leave me...

Bo: Nope Mama, we have spent a lot of time together and I am really, really happy to see a new face. Look at how big my grin is - I'm really happy..... in fact, let's go right now!

And off he went. Huge smile on his face, not in the slightest bit sad to see me leave in the rickshaw, and he looked so well, happy and clean when I picked him up. Actually, that's not quite true...when I arrived a little early they were hosing him down in the garden like a little plant. Shower over, and wrapped in towel, he lept into my arms. So he may not miss me, but I think he still loves me!

Nice to natter

Back in January, when Ollie first went away on a trip, I took the boys on a boat ride. A young Welsh guy called Daniel kindly helped me out and lifted Seth up so he could watch the other boats while I made sure Bo's pushchair didn't roll off into the water. Daniel was visiting his parents, Barbara and Martyn, who were in India for six months, visting extended family, and I ended up getting to know them a little.

Barbara (pictured above, left), a bubbly Welsh lady who oozes warmth and can't stop chatting, was born in Bangalore and had an Anglo-Argentine mother. She always found her mother's ways a little eccentric and odd in Cardiff, but after visiting Fort Cochin some years ago, and connecting with the Anglo-Indian community here, her mother started to make sense! Barbara and Martyn both love India and have been here several times, even discovering cousins and papers dating her family connections in south India back to the 18th century! They leave tomorrow to meet more long-lost relations, and although we didn't spend as much time together as we'd have liked, I'll be sad not to bump into Barbara's cheery face at St Francis Church, Dal Roti and Kashi.

Katie (right), who's also been to Fort Cochin several times over the last five years, has been volunteering at a school for children with disabilities. Another regular on the Kashi-Dal Roti-Shala (although Shala has sadly closed for the foreseeable future) circuit, when she leaves on Sunday this place is going to be an awful lot quieter than it already is. Cristelle is still here and is very kind, and we keep up our Friday morning coffee date to which she invites a steady stream of mostly French-speaking women, a couple of whom have babies around Bo's age. It's hard to explain, but as there isn't much to do there doesn't seem to be anywhere to go with the friendships. I'm finding most people have their reasons for being here, mainly relationships, which they're absorbed in and there isn't much space or need for socialising or having friends in the way I'm used to. We're leaving Cochin in three weeks, so it's a not a big deal, and I'm grateful for the handful of friendly faces to remember for being nice enough to natter with me.

School bus

Shaji, the tuk-tuk driver who is doing the school and childminder run with me each day, brought his two kids, Raisha and Rizwan, along yesterday. His wife also sent breakfast (iddly and coconut chutney) for me yesterday.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Viva overnight bus journeys

When Ollie spent a year researching  Viva South America!, spending a month or so in each country, he travelled most of the continent by bus, mostly overnight. In his research for The Hour of Laksmi Ollie embracing the new India he's writing about, and is hopping around the country on low-cost airlines, and this week he watched the IPL final with a Rajasthani king. Tonight though he's back to the Viva! days and is on an overnight bus from Chennai to Bangalore (having flown Bangalore-Chennai early this morning).

This is all a shameless plug for Viva South America! a journey through a restless continent by Oliver Balch, now available in a new, smaller paperback version. Good reviews continue to trickle in a year after publication, and this week there was a nice write-up in The Argentimes, to coincide with the Buenos Aires International Book Fair

p.s. Can you tell someone suggested I make more links in my blog posts? I'm not sure I like the look, but apparently it is what good bloggers do.

Home spa day

I didn't leave the house today. The city had ground to a halt due to strikes (Kerala is a Communist state and has a very strong union movement), so there was no school, no tuk-tuks, no shops open, and plenty of street demonstrations.

It's much too hot for the boys to play outside, so our day of fun and games in the room started with Bo waking, bright and perky at 5.15am. Not a good start. I managed to make it through to 11am and lure them to their beds with a bottle of milk. We all caught some sleep (I'm a bit ill, aching all over, sore throat...I don't usually sleep in the middle of the day..). A bit of a kip and we were all friends again.

It's pretty tricky with a 10 month old and a just turned 2 year old. Seth has a lot of energy, but he's like his Pa and has times when he's really quiet and wants to sit on his own doing a puzzle, or reading his books. Not Bo! He wants to be doing whatever Seth's doing, and none of this quiet contemplation business, he grabs a jigsaw piece and scampers off to the other side of the room giggling and keeps doing that until he has whole pile of his own. This annoys Seth so he rugby tackles Bo and lies on top of him making sure he can't run off with his puzzle. Very funny thinks Bo, until he realise Seth's quite heavy...aarghhh!

Four hours of this in the afternoon, trapped in our room, and I needed something to do where I could stand up (out of their way), still be watching them, but that wouldn't catch their attention (rules out anything on the computer, the CD player, or reading a book) and they would ignore me. So I decided to try out all the Ayurvedic potions and lotions I've bought here in Kerala.

First I lined up the bottles of medicine that I've bought. There's very little to spend money on, here in Fort Cochin, so a pound or two on a cute little jar of something that will make me feel well is as good as retail therapy gets.  I have treatments for everything from healthy bones to good digestion. Popped one of each of them and felt better already.

Next step, I took a shower. We actually only have warm water in the afternoon, so why not. The boys busied themselves pouring water into pots and over each other while I massaged soya bean protein, berberry and wild tumeric cleanser into my hair. Then more tumeric mixed with neem to purify my face. Towel dried my hair and rubbed in some Revitalising Hair Oil (Indians are obsessed with hair oil. Seems to just make mine look greasy, but who can say no to Bhiringaraja and Amalaki to promote hair growth, Methi rich in lecithin to nourish hair roots, and Neem and Bilvar to prevent scalp infections?). Bathroom is chaos and everything soaked, so out we all pile, and I'm back to my table of Biotique and Himalaya products. Face packs, skin nourishment, toners, under eye creams - I slap them all on. (I underestimated the level of interest this would generate...Seth starts begging for a dot of cream on his nose and rubbing Bo's cheeks with cotton wool..)

My favourite of all the products I've tried is saved for last. It's from Biotique Botanicals and is a Bio Redwood Naturally Tinted Moisturiser. As it says on the tin, it's not a cosmetic product but has therapeutic properties. So maybe if I keep using it my skin will glow all the time? It also has an SPF 30 UVA/UVB Sunscreen, which I like to wear every day since I started getting sunspots. I need an expert opinion, but I really like it and is the best alternative I've found to the sadly discontinued Lancome Fluide Illuminator.

That took me through to 6pm. Tea time! Cheese and tomato sandwiches for the boys, and after all that effort - a healthy green tea for me.

School tomorrow AND I've found a lovely Indian lady to look after Bo in the afternoons, so I can work for the three weeks we have left here in Cochin. Nice to have had a home-spa afternoon before my first day back at work!

Monday, 26 April 2010

My author love

Seven years ago today I married Oliver Balch. We're not together today (Ollie just flew from Bombay to Bangalore) but don't read an itch into that.

I haven't found India an easy experience, but I don't regret being here for one second. I love that Ollie takes me on these adventures, and for all the difficult days in Cochin we're having a very special family time which we'll remember fondly, always.

Seth's photos of Ol and me are mostly smudgy from his finger prints on the lens or just capture our tummies, both of which have gone a bit flabby and certainly won't be featured on this blog. So here's one from Ollie's Viva South America! event at The Travel Bookshop in January, which was our last date (and that was with about 30 other people). Aaah, for Argentina and babysitting on tap.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Rosewood wonderland

Having said in my previous post that I like Jew Town for its antiques shops and ginger lime soda, Kumar (whose we live with) sent me this link. It's a review of his own shop, Leens Antiques, one of the most well established and reputed businesses in the area. Click on the link to see some great photos (better than I can take with the flash on my little Lumix Panasonic). I like the reviewer's use of 'unassuming' for this shop, just the word I'd use for Kumar himself.

Photo by Greg Sacks, download from Trufflepig

Ten things I love about Kochi

Because I don't like being negative.

1. Seth is so happy here. Life can't get much better for him than Apple Kids and sitting in a tuk-tuk silently looking out and taking it all in. For all my stories, he's really very good and he's just slotted right in. I'm only sad about leaving Kochi when I think about taking Sethie away from here. Our Mowgli fits right into the Indian jungle.

2. Palace Road. Chaotic and dirty it is, but I never tire of that route to/from Fort Cochin. I always spot something new, the colours are cheering, it's fascinating seeing how people fill their days, and there's the familiarity of the lady always rolling chappatis on the pavement outside her house and the wrinkly man pouring ginger lime sodas in his orange painted shack.

3. Kashi cafe. Because there's nowhere else where I don't feel out of place.

4. Parade Ground and Dutch Palace Gardens. The path around this big stretch of sun-scorched grass is mostly free of traffic and people, and the Gardens closer to home are almost deserted. I can walk around both and feel a much-needed sense of space. As the sun sets over the the palms and I pass the the wooden roofed houses, I see the romance of India.

5. Stuffed Panner and Vegetable Paratha at Dal Roti. I order it every time.

6. Our room at Sui House. It's pretty claustrophic, four of us living in this one small space, preparing food on the window sill and eating around a tiny coffee table, and sleeping, playing, working and relaxing around each other. But when I make an effort to have it all perfectly tidy, all our clothes neatly folded and crammed into the three shelves, toys packed away, plates washed and dried, it's really a haven.

7. The colours. I'm such a fan of big bold colours and I can't see enough painted green doors or turquoise carts, or mountains of red chillis and garlands of orange marigolds.

8. Apple Kids. Mentioned in point 1, but not only has it made my little boy very content (and taught him Indian words and gestures!) it's my most authentic Indian experience, and I suppose it was worth coming all this way for that.

9. Jew Town. Heather was horrified that it's actually called that! Rickshaw free lane, hassle free antique shops and the best fresh ginger lime soda, all just 5 mins down the road.

10. The sky. Not a tower in sight, just trees and birds and big open, blue sky. And lately, the most incredible pre-rain skies. Seth, Bo and I sit on the step outside our door and watch the clouds move from grey to black, clouds forming intricate patterns, the palm trees swaying in the wind, and then CRASH the thunder starts and the rain hits the ground and we dash inside. I'll miss the Keralan skies.

Men, a meltdown and a mother

A rare thing happened today. I had a conversation with an Indian woman. Funnily enough, in the rickshaw on the way to school this morning I was counting how many women I saw in relation to men. I saw 5 women and at least 38 men. Two of the women were carrying stones in a basket on their head, on a building site, and the other three were walked along the side of the road wearing saris and carrying an umbrella for sun shade.

We arrived at school, and as usual there was a handful of fathers and grandfathers dropping off children. They usually ignore me or acknowedge me with a waggle of the head. No conversation, but I prefer that to my usual interactions with men. They're full of comments about me or the children and it's really wearing.

In fact, yesterday I had really had it with Indian men. It's been a while since we had a meltdown story, so let me tell you.

I'm fast turning into a stereotype. Cultural adaptation textbook, Clause ii. Hostility to host country.  The negativity, rage, repulsion. I have it all. And I only do things in extremities.

So yesterday. Bad bad day. Sethie's missing his Papa and talks all day about his Pa leaving in Ambassador, now being in a plane wearing a seatbelt (yes, I think his idea is that Ollie is sitting in a plane flying above Kochi for two weeks) and he's a bit all over the place, not really eating, wanting to do everything with Bo.

So I took them to an Italian restaurant for a treat. Great place! Clean, seats that children can actually sit in and see over the top of the table, and great pizza! I nearly cried when they came out and had real BACON, BROCCOLI, and SPINACH toppings.

It was all going so well as the boys tucked in their faces beaming. I imagined their iron-protein rush after three months of biryani and chappatis, and felt like such a good mother. I tripped over my smugness and fell flat on my face. Seth hopped down from the table and headed for his train, which he'd insisted on bringing. One battle lost at home, a bigger battle to fight in public. I moved the train out of sight and braced myself. High on antioxidants the tantrum was the worst yet. I ignored him and continued feeding broccoli and cheese to Bo.

I should point out that we were the only people in the restaurant, it was 6pm. The waiter came over to me and said 'the boy is crying (thanks for that mate) why don't you give him the train?' I stood up, picked up my things, left some money on the table, and left. Stepped out onto the street and saw all men. Lots of men who provide a commentary as I walk down the street 'madam, the sun is in the baby's eyes', 'madam, the boys shirt is hanging out', 'madam, why don't you carry the boy?' We clambered into a rickshaw, the seat fell off onto the floor, so holding Bo I lifted the seat back up, and put all our things back onto it (nice crowd of three men now peering in watching the spectacle), called Ollie and said I'm going home!

So, back to this morning. Unusually there was another Mum there dropping off her daughter. She asked where I was from, and told me her daughter was born in New York. She has twins aged 3 (I felt better) and has returned to Kerala for a while after 12 years in New York because it's too difficult with the girls so far from home. We chatted a little and for the first time I'd i. had a conversation with an Indian woman in Kochi other than Pauline at Sui House and the teachers at Seth's school and ii. seen a look of empathy. It felt so good.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Fishermen's Colony

Ji-ju is a short man with a big personality. I like them - my lovely Pa is five foot five with a character big enough for a giant. Ji-ji is a rickshaw driver who fancies himself as a tour guide. He's known around town for spotting foreigners, charming them, and taking them to the best local places for chai and local sweets, chicken biryani, and fresh mango juice. He chats non-stop, and jumps onto rocks and grabs your camera and tells you to move a bit to the left, crouch down, look to the left, smile - there, lovely! Heather hired him for the day to take her on a gourmet tour of Fort Cochin. Eat she did, and shop she did, and I joined her on visit to see the dhobi-wallahs (laundry men) at work. Now I know why all my clothes look so battered, having watched them thrash it against the wall!

Of course Ji-ji can never just take you to one place (despite me protesting that Bo was at home and I really needed to get back...) and he had some 'secret' places to take us. And so we found ourselves at a fishing colony and an ancient wood mill, where the men looked to be in deep discussion, wondering how to turn the big log, as if they've never done it before!

Ji-ji, as I said, is a charmer and he sure won Seth over....he let Seth stand in front of him as he drove the tuk-tuk into town later that day. Yup, it's as dangerous as it sounds, but you've got to pick your battles and it made Seth the happiest little boy in town.

The Dhobi Wallahs


Our Mowgli

All in a day on a houseboat

Houseboat living

Life slows down and all there is to do isread and eat....and play with Ambassador and Percy. We had games planned for the evening, but Heather was turning the pages of Shantaram, and Ollie had of course nodded off as soon as the sun went down.