Well I am halfway through my Midlife Crisis (trip), and I am celebrating this milestone with 5 days in fab hotels in the Maldives, before I start my next project here. This downtime gives me the opportunity to reflect on the past 6 weeks, and particularly my time in Goa.
In the afternoons I worked on a new initiative to teach basic English to the women living in the Salgado slums. The hope is that this skill will help them to get work as cleaners and maids. The first day that I arrived I was shocked, and I had known it was going to be bad. Large families live in breeze block cells measuring 2m x 2m with no windows and leaking corrugated roofs. At night they simply lie down to sleep on the earth floor, without blankets or mattresses. All aspects of everyday life take place in this tiny space; eating, cooking, relaxing, sleeping and dressing. These families are migrants from other states who have come to Goa in search of work. The men do manual labour, moving rocks or clearing vegetation, and the women stay at home. The household income is around £2000 per year. The men are paid on Saturdays, and sadly they spend a large chunk of their wages getting drunk on cheap spirits on Sundays, and many then become violent towards their wives. The women can do nothing, they simply have no choices. If they tried to leave, their husbands would kill them, and no one would bat an eyelid, as they have no birth certificates or ID. In the eyes of the law they do not exist. As many got married aged 12 they know no other life. Learning English will give them an opportunity to earn some money, and also something to break the endless monotony of washing, cooking and child minding in these filthy condition. What struck me most was the beauty of these women. No facials or expensive creams had ever graced their faces, yet they had the most perfect skin and white teeth. Their clothes were always clean, earrings dangled and hair was arranged neatly. This seemed an incredible achievement, given their living conditions. I quickly realized how bright they were, they picked up phrases so fast. Some knew how to write the English alphabet from looking at their childrens’ homework books. There was also a huge sense of comraderie between the ladies. They all looked after each others’ kids and encouraged each other in the lessons. One afternoon I discovered that the Hindi words ‘khana banana’ mean ‘I am cooking.’ I thought this was hysterical, and said it over and over again, accompanied by a little dance. The group thought this was very amusing. I felt honoured the next day when I was invited into one of their homes to learn how to make roti bread on a single Calor gas hob, with someone holding a lantern as there was no power that afternoon. The women did this with such dexterity, whereas my effort was definitely more chunky naan than roti. We ate the bread with some tooth-descaling pickle made from a tree root (I didn’t dare to ask which tree). This was a little interlude, but such a memorable one, and an experience I will never forget. I said my final ‘khana banana’ to the ladies on Friday. They hugged me and said ‘goodbye ticher.’ I actually left feeling frustrated that I had so little time to make any meaningful difference to their incredibly tough lives. But if I had stayed longer I might have tried to change their worlds, which would have gone horribly wrong.
There are many similarities between Nepal and Goa. Both countries are vastly under developed by western standards, buildings are crumbling and there is little investment in infrastructure. Environmental awareness is poor and the roads are full of cars and lorries belching out exhaust fumes. Litter and squalor abounds. The majority of people live in abject poverty and their governments misuse funds, abuse their power, and do little to improve the living standards of those they govern. Interestingly these people are very accepting of this injustice, it is just the way it is. Religion also plays a far greater part in life than in the UK. Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity co-exist with mutual respect and this Faith gives people comfort, hope and direction. I think this softens the reality of their impoverished existences, but perhaps it stops them questioning it. Is that a good thing?
Before I sign off I must say that, at the request of some of my mates, I did get a sari. A delightful lady from the old people’s home dressed me in it. A process which took 30 minutes and 7m of fabric being wound and strategically folded around my torso. At the end I gasped at the incongruity of ‘white woman does sari’ but all the lady residents loved it. I then went to see my special gentleman, Sandeep. When he saw me his eyes lit up and he adopted a huge grin. I think he was so flattered that I had actually gone to all the trouble. Sadly whilst his face was a picture, he refused a photo with me. He doesn’t trust mobile phones. A very wise man indeed!