Nothing prepared us for the sounds sights and smells of Mumbai.
We sent off this morning from The Gateway to India on a colourful, wooden Ferry packed with local families. A day out to the elephant caves which are situated about an hour’s ride from Mumbai. The sacred, ancient caves were carved out of stone in the hillside by the Buddhist and Hindus thousands of years ago. The island is inhabited by cheeky red faces; monkeys who take any opportunity to steal people’s belongings. They had a particular liking for Coca Cola! Sacred cows roam the streets and Indian street vendors had set up stalls selling fruit, sticky hot nuts, jewellery and souvenirs.
This beautiful peaceful place is becoming taken over with rubbish and litter which we were about to learn is an accepted part of the Indian culture in Mumbai. We enjoyed lunch back in the city at a renowned vegetarian Restaurant. Very cautiously we washed our hands then used anti bac up our elbows before using our fingers in true Indian style to eat our spicy pots of curried vegetarian dishes. We then set off on our walking tour. 5 year old children sleeping on bin bags along the busy roadside, horns beeping constantly, up to 5 lanes of buses, cars and scooters came whizzing dangerously past. Young children walking alongside you tugging at your sleeve with hands outstretched. Women washing their clothes on a dirty roadside. Men and boys everywhere competitively playing cricket. Beautiful buildings from colonial to gothic, sharing a street scene with dilapidated slums. Wow what a city of contrast!
First stop was Doorstep school their aim is to break the poverty cycle by providing pre-school education for 3500 slum dwellers. Children are looked after by 2 students for 25 children they learn rhymes, songs, basic language and early literacy and numeracy. Teachers are from the slums with no specialisation in early years. They have developed their own framework to teach the children housed in tiny structures as small as a garage. Health and safety is non-existent with goats and chickens wandering in and out. Children arrive whenever they wish and the smell of sewers, stale rubbish and street food combined made our already delicate stomachs turn over. Resources are poor and children are dirty and undernourished however they were all happy and so very well behaved. All ages are grouped together for 2 and a half hour sessions. Resources are limited as in the slums they sometimes can’t even access water for painting the teachers go and visit the parents at home to feedback and to check on them if they don’t attend. Snack time is an important highlight of the day and encourages parents to send them in. Doorstep have also turned buses into classrooms and so that they can reach out to those who live on the street. One teacher spoke proudly about a boy who came to their school who now works on a cruise ship, another who is a professional rugby player and others that have been so inspired they have turned to teaching themselves.
Our next stop was a privately run pre-school and day care setting called Jumbo kids – the largest chain of nurseries in India. A total of 400 children being cared for in one setting and with a total of 280 settings nation-wide. We were welcomed in true Indian style. On entering a Bindi was placed on our forehead and a tropical origami flower was given to us as a gift. This chain of nurseries is leading the way and the president of the organisation is fighting to change government policy in this unregulated sector, to introduce a framework that day care settings can work within to raise the standard of teaching and learning country wide. Jumbo kids have chosen to use the EYFS framework and follow monthly themes to help them deliver. Generally Indian families want a very formal education for their pre-school children and Jumbo kids combine the parents’ wishes with the EYFS with formal lesson plans being delivered in specialised rooms.
We were treated to a taste of Mumbai and evening of speakers ranging from Save the Children India to a Reggio Emilia Approach Specialist.
At the end of the night we boarded our bus with a small delay as two sacred cows roamed the intersection. And caused even more chaos on the roads! Another amazing day in Mumbai. Next stop Bangalore!
Day 3 …
Today we were up at 5am and off to the airport flying with India’s version of Ryan Air! Seat belt checks were not carried out and the wings looked like something from a World War 2 Plane! We then travelled 4 hours on a coach with Danesh our Tour Guide educating us with fascinating facts on everything Indian. We passed through small villages where animals roamed freely on the streets and colourful stalls lined the dusty roads. We ate lunch by the river then continued to visit some temples. We then checked into the Fortune Hotel in Mysore, getting ready for some food, cocktails and an early night!
Montessori school in Mysore a Pre -school of 25 children with two teachers. Fees are £210 per year for a child. A school year runs from June until march . They attend Monday to Saturday 9-1 pm. They also provide education for autistic children. Sadly The Indian government does not provide any support in mainstream schools and children with additional needs more often than not stay at home. Meals are provided by the parents with a set daily menu provided by the nursery to encourage healthy eating. The daily routine included rhyme time activities, flash cards, writing, snack, activity and pre writing skills. Parents and children are given regular homework tasks to complete, which is sent back to school to be marked! A very structured routine for small children with little opportunity for them to be independent. Most children go on to a Christian school. These children come to school at two, most with no knowledge of English. The First five months at pre school they are spoken to in their native language after that they only use English. The children sang lots of familiar English songs to us and made us feel very welcome. We moved on to visit the wonderful Mysore palace which gave us a great insight into how the Maharajas used to live in their luxury homes. Straight on to lunch st the palace hotel and then a trip to the chemist where I was sold some antibiotics for 50p! Our journey back to the hotel was the most hair raising drive we have ever experienced. Instead of using brakes the cars use their horns, cut each other up and never give way causing near misses all the way! Feeling blessed to be alive!!
It’s days like these that you remember forever!
We left our hotel and travelled south to a rural village. The houses were mainly bare brick some painted with bright turquoise and yellows and pinks. Women washing their pots outside their homes, others holding babies. Men leading goats or oxen through the streets and cows as always roaming freely causing chaos. We stopped outside a brightly coloured building and were greeted with huge smiles and a very warm welcome from the staff and children who spend 8 hours a day in this nursery. There are 20 children in a room the size of a small garage. No toilet and a gas burner to prepare 2 meals per day. 1 tap and a bowl for washing up. The local villagers had donated a mat for the children to sit on. The walls had various cultural and educational paintings on and 10 children’s chairs for them to sit on. There were no resources for the children apart from a box of toys they had just received from the government consisting of a few jigsaw puzzles , building blocks and a couple of other items. Despite this the children were very happy and the genuine passion that came through from the carers made us feel this was a very special setting which a deep rooted sense of community and pride. Back on the road we headed to Nargahole National Park. With a couple of stops for a fresh coconut drink and to take a look at the cotton fields. We passed through bustling villages with locals selling their produce. The landscape was breathtaking and the roads as always were manic with mopeds, Tuk Tuks, lorries and cows all demanding right of way.
That evening we drove through the national park on a Jeep Safari . The ranger knew his stuff and we spotted elephants, deer, monkeys and finally after following paw prints in the sand we tracked down a tiger! We travelled back to camp through the villages and spotted a huge viper slithering across the road. The memory of the snake and finding a frog and a lizard in our room kept us awake all night!
Day 6 …
An early start we congregated at 6am for breakfast before we boarded our boat for a river safari on the Cabini River through the national park. The water was calm and eerie with a low must covering the river. The ranger spotted a number of interesting birds of prey. We saw crocodiles Jackals and elephants.
Our next trip took us to a village school for tribal children who live in the forest in remote village communities in the jungle. The children are removed from their homes and board at the school for 2 weeks at a time. Some as young as 5 and others were 14, all educated within one room. This is a government initiative in an attempt to provide some form of education to every child. These children are resilient in their own habitat and often left to fend for themselves as their parents wander the jungle searching for food or work. The tribal people lead a very eco-friendly way of life. Living off the land, they are also known for their ancient medicinal remedies which have been passed down for generations. We took a photograph of them and showed them it. They gasped in amazement and we’re delighted to see themselves. They were fascinated to see white people!
Back on the bus for a 6 and a half hour journey through small villages and winding mountain roads. The scenery changing dramatically to more tropical landscapes with lush tea plantations, paddy fields and deep dense forest. Alongside the road we spotted a huge elephant and in true tourist form screamed in delight and insisted the coach driver stop for us to take a photo. We barely had time to reach our cameras before the bus driver sharply pulled off as he noticed signs that the elephant was about to charge at the coach! Shortly after a huge monitor lizard scurried across the road in front of us! Our final destination Calicut.
Finally a free morning, so we took the opportunity to have a lie in and a late breakfast. Embracing the culture we braved a tuk tuk tour around the town and walked along the beach being stared at by all, being the first European face many have ever seen! Angie became somewhat of a celebrity with her blonde hair and had many requests for selfies by locals. Myself and a couple of fellow travellers were asked to take part in the filming of a dodgy Indian pop video, where we were asked to stand either side of a very groomed local looking longingly at him! After lunch we set off on our next adventure- The Express Train from Calicut to Shoranur Danesh. Our guide instructed some “coolies” – (locals who carry bags) who without a sweat carried two suitcases on their heads towards our train. The journey was very pleasant as we had an allocated seat but further up the train it looked as if cattle were off to market! On arrival we boarded our coach for a night to a hotel amongst the paddy fields.
An early start, we set off to visit a camp where elephants used in temple festivals are held. We met with an elephant keeper who explained that a lot of the elephants were chained as they were in “must” and were unpredictable. Each elephant had their own trainer who washes them daily and Feeds them. He explained how very dangerous the Job is and pointed out elephants that had infact killed their trainers! He himself had been badly injured by his own elephant. Their living conditions were unnatural but they were well looked after. We watched the trainers make huge rice balls and cautiously feed theses huge, powerful, beautiful beasts.
Another long drive through breath taking landscapes and rivers as we travelled south to the fishing town of Cochi. Our final destination was a lovely hotel. We were greeted with iced tea and a bindi placed on our forehead. A delicious meal awaited us then we set off to discover the fishing port. Our sunset cruise was somewhat alternative as our vessel turned out to be a fishing boat with a single storey extension and plastic garden chairs tied to the railings with rope! Not quite what we expected but all good fun and stunning views.