Not everyone’s looking forward to Christmas

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Look around you – it’s hard resisting the festive spirit. The city swamped in starry lights, non-stop chatter on radio about plans for the holiday season, and TV advertisements imploring us to ‘give’, and ‘make it just that extra special for someone’.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, they say, but there’s not much room in big brand advertising for the symbolism of the birth of Christ, or the charitable traditions of Christmas…. so what really is Christmas?

A few weeks ago, a group of colleagues from work and I took a break from the self-indulgent nature of Christmas when we were invited to spend the day with young disadvantaged children at a primary school in South London.

Together with Kids Company – a charity that provides practical, educational and emotional support to children around London, we organised six different activities from cupcake dressing and face-painting, to making cards and playing musical chairs.

The volunteers dressed up as Santa’s elves, Christmas trees, and a Christmas pudding. Of the Santas, one in particular was effortlessly jolly and the other had a sophisticated hand wave. The elves and trees were cheerful throughout the day and made sure the kids had enough to eat and drink.

As a Christmas pudding, I was tasked with face painting. Nervous at first, I gradually got better with every butterfly and lion, and excelled in Superman faces. I just hoped nobody would want ‘Lady Gaga’.

While having their faces painted, some of the kids engaged in conversation, but others preferred to stay quiet and concentrate on the final outcome. Many left satisfied, recommending to their friend and pointing to the face-painting desk. It wasn’t long before we heard another ‘Miss, I would like a butterfly.’

‘Are you looking forward to Christmas?’ I asked Jeff, a seven year old boy (name changed). There was a hesitation followed by a soft whisper ‘No’.

The feeling of anxiety before Christmas is not unique to young children. Yesterday, at Crisis – a shelter that welcomes rough sleepers and people without families – there was an elderly lady, perhaps in her early sixties, apprehensive about idea of spending the day on her own. ‘Without public transport, don’t think I could make it to the centre, and I’m not sure what I’d do by myself apart from smoke cigarettes, she said wistfully.

For all that X’mas has to offer – Christmas markets, festive treats et al, I became slightly confused about the spirit of Christmas.

While Covent Garden saw festive shoppers indulge in the festive spirit, the world of young children at Kids Co. and Crisis was a far cry from what I see every day.

Perhaps the idea of Santa Claus is a fictional character that some children only see in films.  While speaking with the Kids Co. volunteers, we were informed a majority of the children at the school were emotionally abused, homeless and from troubled backgrounds.

‘A significant proportion of children find Christmas a struggle and this is further exacerbated by pre-existing financial difficulties in their families,’ said Jasmina Stosic from Kids Company. ‘These children don’t come from stable homes.
They have to make choices between paying the gas bills and celebrating
Christmas,’ she added.

Similarly volunteers at Crisis are up against the odds in trying to accommodate most guests as there has been a 43 per cent increase in homeless people since the last year.

Recent statistics released by Joseph Rowntree Foundation show child poverty in the UK has fallen to 27 per cent, its lowest rate for almost 25 years. However Jasmina said, ‘That frankly is misleading, we are looking after more than 36,000 children, and the number is growing.’

I recalled what Dr. Seuss had said in How the Grinch stole Christmas: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!  What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

With more than 30,000  children anxious about the holiday season, and a significant rise in people without a roof above their head, we could probably all afford to do a little bit more, either with our time or our money, to benefit those for whom Christmas offers no consolation from daily life.

Nobody said it would be easy – but not forgetting those most in need at Christmas time will mean more smiles on children’s faces all year round.

 

 

Note to travellers: Common misconceptions about India

It’s more than a week since I arrived in England, from a three-week holiday in India. Friends and colleagues alike have been curious to know more about the holiday. Some having travelled before love to engage with their experiences, citing mostly great weather, historic sites, friendly locals, beaches and succulent kebabs. Others, still wary, wonder if you’ve been attacked by a stray dog or have contracted an illness.

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Dona Paula, Goa

Not surprisingly, a question that tops the list is “Did you have Delhi belly?” For which my answer is invariably ‘no’, and leaves them looking rather baffled.

I often wonder where, how and on what basis were these preconceptions founded upon? Was it the hippies of the yester years, travel guides like Lonely Planet or just a matter of the accumulated historical assumptions of the West about the East, the kind Edward W. Said has catalogued in his book ‘Orientalism’.

Certainly, India is a nation of 1 billion people and still growing, lacking in rail networks, infrastructure and basic amenities. However, that doesn’t imply, if you travel to the sub-continent, you will be ill.

My travels from Goa right through South India on trains, buses, and rickshaws took us through some of the most taxing roads and rail networks. Nevertheless, we encountered friendly locals, smiling faces, delicious train food for as little as 65p, and grubby loos if you were in a sleeper class. I can almost assure you 2AC for a higher price, is much more luxurious and the experience will be different.

Through my journeys and interaction with people in different places, it was not uncommon to hear fellow travellers whine about the lack of hygiene, poor sanitation, and strange men. While some of it stands true, others I believe are misconstrued ideas about the country built over a period of time.

For example – the term ‘Delhi belly’ is pejorative and borderline racist, and originates from travellers to India who have sustained themselves, understandably on cheap street food for lengthy periods. The term implies that there is a natural link between upset stomachs and life in India – when, of course, the link is as a result of the travel habits of frugal visitors. ‘Delhi belly’ will always carry a vaguely judgemental connotation that is as false as if I were to give up home cooking for a diet of McDonalds in London, and then blame the resulting upset stomach on some innate quality of the West.

Apart from ‘Delhi belly’ there are a few other misconceptions I’ve had to deal with in recent weeks, which I hope to clarify in my blog here:

# 1 Accommodation is filthy

People travelling for four – six weeks are on a budget and would naturally like to maximise value for their money. Who wouldn’t? I have several times while travelling across Asia. However, one has to recognise the price that comes with staying in budget accommodation (i.e. 1 – 2£ per day)  – will be having to put up with lizards, frogs, salamanders, scorpions, beetles and perhaps even snakes to keep you company at night.

Be warned, sometimes mattresses are often infested with dreadlocks from another backpacker, and if you are wise enough – a sleeping bag and mosquito net will be indispensable to your travel kit.

That said, not everywhere in India is like that. Infact the country is home to some of the finest hotels and unique ‘themed’ earth resorts, cave houses, tree houses, and bamboo beach huts. My advice is book in advance to avail of good deals. If you feel like you have the money to spend, go indulge yourself and try something new.

Earth Huts, Banasura Hills, Kerala
Earth Huts, Banasura Hills, Kerala

# 2 ‘I’m on a journey to self-discovery in India’

It is common practice among most westerners to assume India as home to a place for ‘self realisation’, ‘self-discovery or embark on ‘truth-seeking’ journeys. Perhaps, it’s movies such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or even life experiences and blogs by previous travellers such as Abigail Butcher and Mariellen Ward that have inspired others.

Several travel websites like IFRE Volunteers Abroad are responsible for creating this delusion ‘travel to India and it will expand your soul’. This can be quite commonly witnessed along the beaches in Goa at several ashrams and monasteries – Sun worshippers, people dressed in Indian tat, practising yoga, and on herbal diets akin.

As expected, as a tourist for the first time you want to immerse yourself into the experience wholeheartedly for fear of missing out (aka F.O.M.O.)

However, because of the endless propaganda in the west from holiday websites and tour operators – to think of the country as a place solely for spiritual journeys and troubled people, is frankly misleading. At worst, it’s a fallacy, if you travel to India – its all going to be okay.

Certainly, it is a spiritual country, with many religions, beliefs, monasteries, festivals and cultures, however, its blasphemy when you try to combine that with alcohol and drugs.

Sunset in Allepey, Kerala

# 3 Will I get Ill?

There is no shortage to the variety and quality of food one can find whether its North, South, East or West Indian cuisine. With all its shortcomings, India can still proudly boast of some of the finest ‘tandoor tikkas’ and vegetarian food in the world.

Like in any country known for their signature dishes, India has several – Tandoor tikkas, parathas, naan, masala dosas, fish curry, samosas etc.and the list goes on. However if you choose to drink water from unhygienic sources or consume food from unreliable eateries covered in flies, you are asking for trouble.

Obviously, you would like to steer of foods like rare steak or meats. Unless, it’s a place recommended by a local or its often frequented by other locals

Leo Batchelor, who visited India for the first time and has Crohn’s disease, ate everything from vegetarian biryanis, grilled fish, and samosas on trains. He said, “I feel better than ever. A little bit of spice goes a long way for the experience.”

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Leo devouring a vegetable biryani

# 4 Why is India so poor?

I’m often left dumbfounded when someone asks me ‘Why is India so poor? Either you consume too much television media; or solely rely on western media films like ‘ Slumdog Millionaire’ to shape your opinions.

I’m not going to defend the country’s worth, by arguing about the number of billionaires or how entrepreneurs such as Tata and Wipro, have been responsible for creating jobs in a recession struck European economy.

Undeniably, our politicians are corrupt and bureaucracy and red tapism is inevitable. Our leaders don’t camouflage the poverty by building favelas or high-rise walls or evicting people to other regions. Plain and simple, it’s evident, what you see is what you get.

And in big cities, people sleep rough, just like they do in London and New York. With a growing population of more than a billion people, without a welfare state and social housing by the government, this doesn’t stop people from being optimistic and trying to make ends meet.

# 5 Indian men stare

You are in a country that encourages conservative dress if you choose to travel by public transport. If you decide not to honour this, you will have to put up with the consequences – endless staring from men. I did.

The reason being, many Indian men are still not used to anything other than women dressed in a saree or a salwar kameez. You can get away with it in cosmopolitan cities, however in rural areas and public transport platforms, be prepared for some stares.

Now one might question, the way Indian actors are portrayed in Bollywood, however, that’s another argument in itself.

# 6 Is it safe?

Which brings me to the next question – Is it safe? To be fair, I don’t feel safe walking the streets of London.

At best, we didn’t encounter someone who stuck a knife in our face demanding valuables. That said, I am speaking strictly for places we visited in South India.  At the time, we were travelling, news about the rape in New Delhi was relentless, both from local and international networks. What called for intense media attention was the victim’s death.

In late November, eleven year-old had been raped in Jubilee Park, on her way from school in London. However that didn’t make the international news headlines. Rape cases dealt by police officers in London are just as bungled up, as the ones in North India. So what makes people think London is safer than India? More recently, acid was thrown on 21-year-old Naomi Uni, by a stranger, when she was returning home from a late night shift.

My experience living in different countries over the years has been one where you have to take responsibility for your personal safety.

# 7  Entry-fees to public monuments is unfair to tourists

When visiting palaces and museums in South India, the disparity in entry fees for Indians vs. Non Indians is obvious. During our visit to Mysore Palace, the entry fee for Leo was  £3 (240 INR) and for me 30p (40 INR).

Understandably, its something many European visitors don’t take too well, with many stating it’s chauvinistic. However, if one were to compare the annual average British income i.e.£ 26,500 (2223135.35 INR) to the annual average Indian income i.e. £716.02, (60,000 INR) – the difference is beyond belief.

Secondly, the locals are taxpayers. Given that some of the tax-money is used for the upkeep and refurbishment of these areas, it’s only too fair for them to have easy access at reasonable rates.

Lonely Planet has endlessly argued this topic in their blog: Should foreigners pay higher prices?