Sea Life and Death…

As part of the application process for every volunteering project I chose, I had to write a short piece on why I should be considered for that project. Why a Surrey interior designer could add value to a turtle conservation project was a tough one to answer, so I hurriedly flicked through some David Attenborough documentaries on YouTube before replying. I also had to state that I was a competent swimmer (which I am) and a competent snorkeler (which I am not). Truth is, I had never actually been snorkeling until I arrived here.

When I was staying in the luxury resort a few weeks ago, I hung around the watersports centre until a very attractive and tanned Australian instructor walked in. ‘Yippee’ I thought, and immediately signed up for a one hour private lesson. I have to say that when Mr Fit glided into the water and start swishing around, I mastered de-fogging my mask and breathing through a snorkel very quickly. And Wow! As soon as I put my head down I could have been on the set of ‘Finding Nemo.’ Clownfish joked around, iridescent parrotfish flickered past and angelfish hovered. The instructor was amazing. He kept diving and picking up creatures from the coral reef, including sea cucumbers and giant sea slugs, for me to inspect and touch. At one point he picked up a puffer fish. I had it in the back of my head that this was exceptionally poisonous, but I stroked its rubber hedgehog-like spines anyway. I then saw a spectacular multicoloured fish with a large black dorsal fin. I pointed at it, excitedly, and started swimming towards it, and was yanked to the surface most unceremoniously by Aussie Flippers. ‘Sorry,’ he said ‘but that’s a triggerfish, one of the few aggressive species around here, and it could take a big chunk out of your leg if it wanted to.’ Trust me…

A stunning parrotfish

When I came to work at the Atoll Marine Centre the team went for a snorkel after my first shift. ‘Done much snorkeling before then Jayne?’ I was asked. To which I replied ‘Well, I have done a bit.’ I didn’t elucidate that it was a microscopic bit… Everyone nimbly skipped over the slimy boulders on the jetty and slipped into the water, whilst I was still trying to clamber over the rocks on my hands and knees, and keep my flip flops on, at the same time. Sean, the lovely Australian marine biologist, politely waited for me and kindly said ‘that was a very graceful entry’ as I belly-flopped into the harbour. I negotiated snorkel and mask and was doing some pretty speedy breast stroke to catch up with the group when someone shouted ‘SHARK!’ My first reaction, which I don’t think was an unnatural one, was to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, and was aghast when all the others started swimming towards it. I decided to pretend to swim, whilst treading water, with the theme tune from ‘Jaws’ resonating in my head. Fortunately the shark scooted off pretty quickly, and we all had limbs intact as we headed back to shore. The gang sprung out of the water and onto the rocks with such ease, whilst I kept losing my footing and sliding around like a beached whale. Then came the words I did not want to hear ‘Jayne, it might help if you took your flippers OFF before you try and get out…’ At that point I considered drowning myself to avoid any further embarrassment. Instead I de-flippered and a kind young man hauled me out. This unfortunate episode has not been mentioned again, as the group are such polite and tactful individuals. If my kids had seen this, I would have been reminded of it constantly for the next 25 years.

As they say, practice makes perfect… I can now put my mask and fins (correct term for flippers) on, and join in the group snorkeling trips, without looking like a complete amateur. Whilst the others are mesmerized by the underwater beauty of the Indian Ocean I am looking out for triggerfish, sharks, lionfish, sting rays and anything else that could kill me. If I manage to avoid all of these, then it has been a good trip.

Jayne swimming in the opposite direction…

Turtle Town

Life on the Maldivian island of Naifaru, which I have nicknamed ‘Turtle Town’ moves at a leisurely pace, yet the days are flying by. Every morning the team does a 4 hour shift cleaning the turtle tanks, refilling them, and feeding the turtles and baby hatchlings. This is hard manual labour, carried out in the searing heat, but it is good fun. There is great banter and loud music blares out continuously from a rusty speaker. I was very anxious when it was my turn to put on my playlist for these youngsters, as it is usually met by ‘Oh Gawd Mum PLEASE!’ at home. I am pleased to announce that this gang had way better taste, and loved all my melancholic toons, unless they were being terribly polite to ‘Granny.’ I did do a quick ‘fast forward’ before Shirley Bassey though…

I have to say, I have never been up to my eyes in so much turtle poo before, thinking about it, I have never been up to anywhere in turtle poo before. These days I just jump into a tank full of excrement, and start scrubbing and sweeping, without a second thought. By lunchtime I emit a strange fragrance, comprising poo and Dettol, which certainly won’t be a bestseller this Christmas. To respect local customs I have to carry out this sweaty work with my shoulders and knees fully covered. I soon decided that running gear was the best attire, as it dries quickly, plus I can wear it to jump into the sea mid-shift, if it all gets too much.

Morning workout

On my first morning I was given a bowl of raw tuna and told to feed a turtle. ‘They don’t bite do they?’ was my first question. ‘Not if you do it properly’ came the response. I clearly didn’t, as seconds later I virtually had my middle finger severed by a grumpy old bugger called Noel. I have never screamed ‘Jesus Christ’ quite so loudly. Thank goodness for a Muslim population. My first thought was ‘how am I going to write my blog without a middle finger?’ ‘Those shoes’ would read ‘Th_se sh_es.’ Everyone laughed hysterically as I confirmed that my finger was still intact, but looking very red and my ‘Sunset Glow’ nail polish had been sliced right through. Despite this poor start I have fallen in love with Noel, and clean his shell regularly with a hand brush, whilst repeatedly being told ‘I make a good scrubber.’

Noel getting a scrub!

The work the team do at this charity is incredible. The marine biologists come for 6 to 12 months, without any pay, and they have the most basic accommodation and awful food. They are so passionate about the cause, and work tirelessly as a steady stream of mutilated turtles arrives. These have usually been caught in ghost nets which are disused fishing nets abandoned in the sea. Some have been trapped for weeks and have severed their flippers in an attempt to escape. Once a turtle is caught it is very hard to extricate, as it involves cutting them free with a knife, underwater, whilst they flail around. Most fisherman don’t bother, and leave them to die, so it is usually dive teams who bring them in. Only turtles with at least one front and one back flipper remaining can ever be released again, so there are always battles to find permanent homes in aquariums around the world for the unlucky ones. Noel might be coming to Sea Life in London, and if he does, I will be first in the queue. Shockingly only 1 in a 1000 baby turtles make it to adulthood, due mainly to the manmade threats of global warming, poaching and plastic pollution as well as the nets. I knew so little about these awesome creatures before, but now I am hooked on them. I forgive them for all the poo and finger amputations. We humans have way more to answer for…

The cruelty of ghost nets

Island Life

Sunset from the beach on Naifaru

On Friday I left the opulence of a 5* resort in the Maldives and headed to a native island to work on a turtle conservation project. I had found this luxury a welcome respite from my travels, however it was time to move on. I had got tired of looking at size 22 Russian women, with tattooed eyebrows, who had squeezed themselves into size 10 bikinis, and blokes from Yorkshire who were maximizing the ‘All Inclusive’ package by quaffing pints from 9am and consuming obscene amounts of food at the hotel buffet. Those who weren’t there convalescing from a heart attack were certainly long overdue one.

I caught the staff boat to Naifaru with the resort workers, at the end of their 12 hour shift, and most of them fell asleep, exhausted, as soon as we headed out to sea. This left me alone to watch the bright lights of Western excess disappear as we crossed the water at sunset. An hour later we docked at the main island in the Lhaviyani Atoll, which is 0.5 sq km and has a population of 4000 devout Muslims. As I stepped ashore I expected to be greeted by the charity coordinator, but she was nowhere to be seen. I sat for ages on my rucksack, under a solitary street light, as a steady procession of local guys on motorbikes cruised past to gawp at me, as if I had landed from another planet, rather than another island. Word got around that there was a white woman at the harbour, and it spread along the jetty to where the coordinator was mistakenly waiting for me at the other end. This place was not what I expected. I had poetically envisaged wooden houses, with bamboo roofs, set against a skyline of coconut palms. Instead, this was a low-level concrete settlement rising out of the sand, with the worst litter problem I have ever seen. Plastic bottles and other non-biodegradable waste drowned the dusty streets and the pretty shoreline. Some of this waste is generated by the uneducated locals, but much is washed up from as far away as India and Sri Lanka. There was certainly nothing scenic about the island, except for the sea surrounding it and the stunning sunset. At supper I met the rest of the team, comprising two marine biologists from the UK, and one from Australia, plus volunteers from Denmark and Spain. It was so good to chat to an English person for the first time in months, and I quickly forgave Max for coming from Scunthorpe. As one might expect, the group were vegans, with pony tails and wrists of beaded bracelets, but what a great bunch! I was pleased that I had gorged myself on roast pork and lambs chops in the resort, as it soon became apparent that I had another 3 weeks of lentil curry coming up.

View from the sea at Naifaru

It is only in the last 4 years that foreigners have been allowed onto Naifaru, and even now their entry is strictly regulated. Only those working in the turtle rescue centre can stay here, meaning that today there are only 7 white residents. Whilst men can wander around topless and in shorts, the local women wear hijabs and long cloaks despite the searing heat. All of the females in our group have to cover their shoulders and knees at all times, even when swimming, hence my need to buy a ‘burkini’ all those weeks ago. We are so visible that even an inch of cleavage or a bare leg could result in immediate banishment. Women are not allowed to smoke, go to the cinema or to the gym. Interestingly hardly any inhabitants know how to swim, so they are actually afraid of the sea, although it is never more than a stone’s throw away. The day follows the pattern of the sun, and is only punctuated by calls to prayer or ‘Adhan,’ which reverberate from the mosques 5 times a day, starting at around 4.45am. Life stops here for prayer; shops shut, the bank shuts and cafes close. Men and women hurry along the streets in opposite directions, as they attend their separate mosques. This means it is very difficult to work out when to go to the supermarket, but 10pm is usually a safe bet.

Whilst the other Westerners do vaguely blend into the scenery with their darker skins and hair, my blonde mop and height mean I know how it feels to actually be Meryl Streep. Local women want selfies with me, teenage girls want to stroke my hair and parents ask me to pose for photos with their kids. Most have never left the island or seen a TV, and so I really am a freak of nature to them. I have got so used to this now that, if my blog goes viral, and there is a swarm of paparazzi at Gatwick when I return, I think I can handle it. I will be the one with the braided hair, kaftan and sandals.

Smiling for yet another photo with someone’s disinterested kids…

Wet, Wet, Wet

There is one big negative which is going to stick in my memory of this whole trip, and that is RAIN. In Nepal it never stopped. On the first day I dressed appropriately in my new lightweight Berghaus jacket and trainers, and soon concluded that this wholly appropriate attire was a total waste of time. Within minutes I realised that the jacket’s label stating ‘waterproof’ did not apply to Nepalese rain, and my shirt underneath was clinging to me like a wet frog. I also decided that the Nike ‘Tick’ on my trainers should have been a ‘Cross’ if considered in such conditions. The next day I did as the locals do, and just sported flip flops. They were far more effective for wading through road rivers, and required no drying time.

Nepalese rain

When I got to Goa we had a perfect few days of sunshine and stunning sunsets, then the deep depression followed me, and I spent most of my time drenched to the skin, with frizzy hair like a grown-out perm. Not only that, this rain was the wettest rain I have ever known. It didn’t just soak you, it drowned you. Within minutes I looked like the worst contestant in a wet T-shirt competition. In the end I just resigned myself to a semi-aquatic existence. Unfortunately last week, just as I was about to leave, my deep depression turned into a cyclone over the entire west coast of India. I had decided to stay in a beach shack, in a little resort only 15 minutes from the airport, as I had an early flight the next morning. The one hour journey there took 21/2 hours, as the battered old taxi tried to swim through floods and avoid fallen branches. When we arrived in the little village of Bogmalo I immediately shortened the name to ‘Bog.’ My idyllic beach shack had been partially washed away, and the sea was littered with floating sun loungers and parasols. I hastily found a rather nice hotel up the road which was open, and checked-in. As I left reception the assistant said, ‘Do take an umbrella.’ I said it was pointless in such windy conditions, to which she replied ‘Oh no madam, this is to protect you from falling coconuts, they can kill, you know.’ I grabbed the umbrella and spent the next 5 minutes trying not to do a Mary Poppins whilst musing on another interesting obituary for me. I had a very sleepless night partly due to the thunder, lighting and thud of coconuts falling on my roof, but also because I was constantly checking to see if IndiGo flight 267 to Bengaluru was actually going to take off. As there was no upto date information I headed to the airport anyway at 5am, skirting fallen palm trees and disassembled wooden houses en route. The taxi driver was an old boy, and he said that this was the worst cyclone in his lifetime. Oh Jayne, what perfect timing! Apparently, the beach road I had travelled along just hours before, had been washed away overnight. I am pleased to say that my flight did get blown off the runway in vaguely the right direction but Christ! It was a bumpy ride. If this had been an EasyJet flight there would have been a chorus of screams and shouts of ‘Bugger’ as we repeatedly plummeted a few thousand feet then climbed again. Here, as I was the only non-Hindu on the flight, I had to blaspheme under my breath. The rest of the passengers had handed themselves over to the will of the numerous Hindu gods, and just sat in their seatbelts peacefully.

Goan rain

Two flights later I did finally reach the Maldives and the tiny runway, which is a thin strip of tarmac on a short, skinny island, was bathed in sunshine. ‘This is going to fab’ I thought. It was… for one day. Then the rain started and didn’t stop. Yesterday I changed hotels and one of the highlights of my whole adventure was to be the transfer by seaplane to the second hotel. I headed back to the airport by speedboat where I was told that, due to the weather, my plane might not be taking off, and I might have to take a 6 hour vomit-inducing ferry ride instead. I wasn’t going to jump at that alternative. After a 3 hour wait the storm subsided and up I went in my seaplane to witness the most amazing view of the tiny atolls below, surrounded by coral reefs and the breaking waves of the turquoise sea. I was so happy when I landed that, for a second, I didn’t realise that it had started raining again. It is still raining.

Seaplane Jayne

Hard lives

My beautiful pupils

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.

Making roti

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!

Me with my sari dresser Roshni

Older and Wiser

Visiting the elderly gentlemen

Since arriving in Goa I have been working on community projects. In the mornings I visit 2 old people’s homes. I would like to write something amusing and superficial about my experiences, but it would not be appropriate. The homes are run by Franciscan nuns, one is for men and one for women. Many of the residents are highly educated and have led fascinating lives. In Indian it goes without saying that elderly parents are looked after by their children. Inhabitants have usually ended up in these homes as they did not marry, hence did not have children, or their children have emigrated. So many young people leave Goa to find work abroad in Australia or the USA, particularly in the fields of IT and medicine. The result is that the parents become destitute unless they are fortunate enough to get a place in a Catholic or state-run home. These places are terribly basic. The elderly sleep in dormitories, with no space for personal possessions, and no fans. During the day they sit on plastic chairs in a room with nothing more than a tiled floor and peeling paintwork, or out on the veranda. There is no TV and one newspaper for 40-50 residents. Another problem is that they speak a variety of languages; Konkani, Marathi, Hindu, Portuguese, English etc so many cannot communicate with each other and the staff. Obviously I can only chat with the ones who speak English, but they all wave or hold my hand when I arrive and just sit and watch me. I am the novelty factor in the endless monotony of their existence. We talk about Brexit (oh dear) and how Goa was a much better place when it was ruled by the Portuguese, who left in 1961. Interestingly, one of the hot topics at the moment is how the liquidation of Thomas Cook will cripple the Goan economy. 30,000 room bookings have been lost and cafes, restaurants, shops and hotels are all closing. One old man said his daughter had worked for the agency for years, and had now lost her job, and could not feed her children. It is easy to focus on what happens in the UK, and forget the global impact of such a demise.

Most of these old people have wonderful stories to tell. One was the private secretary to Indira Gandhi, one ran a school for 100 orphans in Africa and another was very senior in the Indian army. They speak so fondly of the lives they once had, with glinting eyes as they recollect their tales. A 96 year-old lady told me how an 9’ long python had slithered into her house one evening, watched by the pet cat, and simply curled up under the dining table. I asked her what she did and she replied ‘I left it there until it decided to leave. We don’t hurt animals, we are all God’s children.’ I didn’t volunteer what I would have done… After every visit I am struck by the serenity of these elders and their huge faith in God. They pray together for 3 hours a day. I think that is what saves them from the realities of their mundane lives and unifies them. After each visit they ask ‘You will come tomorrow won’t you?’ So perhaps they need a lot more companionship as well. I am actually going to feel terribly guilty when I leave here, and I can’t promise to ‘come again tomorrow.’ Every day I give so little but learn so much. One man asked me if I would come wearing a sari, as I would look so nice in one with my blonde hair. You know what? If it makes a lovely old boy happy, I might just do that…

Some of the wonderful ladies with their amazing lives

Fit Bit

I am getting used to life in Goa, it has a really laid back vibe. On Thursday I was asked to go along to a yoga class. As I do Pilates I thought it would be the same, only with a bit more heavy breathing. When we arrived I spotted an older white lady with big gold earrings and pink flip flops who had assumed a prune-like appearance from excessive sun worshiping. She was chatting outside, smoking a fag, and I was thrilled to hear she was a fellow Brummy, with the broadest Brummy accent. I got talking to her, and learnt she had done a Shirley Valentine. She came here on holiday 20 years ago, met an Indian guy, and never went home. Her love for the guy soon faded, but her love of Goa remained. As we chatted she lit one cigarette from another, and I could just imagine her propping up the local beach bar with a pint. I was late going into the class and the only free space was right at the front. I grabbed a mat and sat there eagerly awaiting some taught and toned young Indian yoga guru, in a vest top, to put me through my paces. When the double doors finally swung open imagine my disappointment to see Father Christmas appear. The yoga guru was 120 years old with a long white beard, a long white coat and a vast assortment of ethnic necklaces. He calmly sat down, crossed his legs, put his hands together and starting chanting ‘Ohmmmmmmm.’ It became apparent that were were all meant to ‘Ohmmmmmmm,’ so I joined in as best as I could. This certainly wasn’t Pilates. We were expected to adopt some very weird positions, some of which required the use of a wooden brick, and in between we ‘Oommmmmmmed.’ At one point we had to lie on our backs with our legs up against the wall at a right angle. The only way to get into this position was to sit sideways with your bottom cheeks hard against the wall and then swing your legs up vertically. Unfortunately when I did this my legs swung like a rocket-fuelled pendulum through 180 degrees and landed on a pile of wooden blocks, which tragically toppled over with a loud clatter. I heard ‘tuts’ and gasps from the other class members and I felt mortified as I tried to regain my composure. Then I heard a deep Brummy voice from the back shout ‘Noice one Ja-in!’ Regrettably this made me burst into a fit of giggles. I won’t be attending the Ashtanga Yoga class next week, but I am meeting my new mate Sheila for a pint on Tuesday.

Goodbye yoga…

When I arrived at the hostel here I thought that the most immediate threat to my welfare would be the snakes. Wrong! On the first evening I set up my mosquito net over my bed as best I could. As there was no hook on the ceiling to attach it to, I improvised with an elastic band I found in my suitcase, which I tied to the bracket of a rusty wall light. I must say I have got a lot better at all this technical stuff since I left home. It is amazing what I can do when I can’t rustle up Husband to sort such matters. Anyway, after only one night, I was covered in insect bites, which increased in number steadily every night. This meant I spent most of my waking hours scratching myself to death. At 2.00am on Friday morning I realised that I had even more bites than I went to bed with, despite the absence of mosquitos, and I had an awful thought… I Googled the large red lumps now covering my entire face and body and my suspicions were confirmed. My bed was crawling with bed bugs! This was not conducive to getting any further sleep that night, so I spent the next 5 hours lying on a towel on the floor whilst trying not to think about the millions of bugs inches from my torso. The next morning I complained bitterly to the manager who said ‘Oh don’t worry we will change your sheet tomorrow!’ I have to admit I did rather lose it and said I wanted the whole bug infested building fumigating not just a clean sheet!

Poor me! ☹️

Thanks to me the hostel has been shut for the weekend, while pest control moves in. This seemed like the perfect excuse to run off to a 5* hotel for the night totally guilt-free. Goodbye sleeping bag, hello Egyptian Cotton bed linen and air conditioning…

Poor me! 😀