Monday, 5 April 2010

Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma…

After smashing into that cow on the road to Bundi, our murderous secret began to weigh heavy between the four of us, like the storyline to a trashy teen horror film (I Know What You Did in the Desert). Maybe I was being paranoid, but I began to get the distinct impression that the entire animal kingdom was out for revenge.

The next morning, the first thing we did was to sack our cow-murdering driver, with the vague intention of ‘wiping the slate clean’. But this was India: you can’t escape your bad karma. I mean, not even the toilets flush properly.

It didn’t feel like a coincidence that on the morning after It happened, as we innocently breakfasted on the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, a gang of monkeys launched a premeditated attack from the canvas awning above our table. They weren’t the cuddly kind either; they were more like the fanged, screeching Wizard of Oz variety, with shrunken human faces and a knowing look in their eyes. They leaped down from the roof and prowled around the table, swinging their tails like lethal weapons. “Monkeys very naughty today,” said the owner of the guesthouse, who appeared with a big stick, “But that is your bad karma I think”. Our karma? How could he possibly know what we’d done? “You should give him a chapatti,” he suggested. The alpha male perched on the wall next to us and stared me in the eye while he menacingly fondled his balls.

We spent the rest of the day strolling through the shady cobalt blue streets of Bundi, shopping for sparkly Rajasthani bangles, taking pictures of doorways and trying on turbans.

With my turban on I looked like someone who’d been injured in a major road accident. With her turban on, Claudia looked like the bohemian heroine of an E.M. Forster novel – but everyone else thought she was a transexual. “YOU BOY!” women kept shouting at her in the market, snorting into their saries. She didn’t care though and kept telling them, “they’ll be selling these in Top Shop this time next year”.

Later we ate putrid 30 rupee lukewarm curry in a tin shed by the side of the road and felt really adventurous – and a bit nauseous too. I started worrying about dysentery and clean forgot about The Cow Murder until we began the long winding walk back through the narrow streets to the hotel and an angry herd galloped past with fearsome red and yellow horns, forcing us to shriek and cower in the nearest doorway. ‘Cow very naughty today,’ giggled an old woman washing saucepans outside her house. Naughty? More like deranged. The cows in Mysore just lie there in docile moth-eaten heaps, chewing on old plastic bags – not gnashing their teeth and baying for human flesh. Maybe it was time to leave Bundi?

So the next day we piled into the car with our new driver, Khaled, who turned out to be even worse than the last one. He sat slouched behind his faux fur steering wheel, chewing a dark slimy mouthful of paan, legs splayed in (non-ironic) crotch-hugging acid washed jeans and high-heeled boots. He spat out the window and introduced himself as, “number one driver and tour guide in Rajasthan”. He was one of those repulsive blokes whose main goal in life is to draw attention to his straining gusset – and like all the most disgusting spectacles, it was difficult to avert our eyes. I sat in the front seat and tried to concentrate on the scenery: the endless dusty highway, blue skies, and camel trains loping across the rocky desertscape. As we passed through small towns along the way, I would cheerfully ask the Number One Guide in Rajasthan, “Where are we now Khaled?” Silence. “And now?” Silence. “What about now?” Spit. “HEughhhhher,” spit. “This place, you don’t need to know,” he grunted.


We arrived in Udaipur (‘the most romantic city in India’) hot, tired and quite pissed off. "Don’t call us, we’ll call you" you big sweaty bollock, we said to Khaled, when he dropped us off at our hotel. He regurgitated some unidentifiable substance onto the hotel forecourt and wandered off into the sunset with a click of his Cuban heels. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,” I thought, smiling and waving him goodbye. Please let our bad karma be over soon.

We thought our luck might be on the turn when we walked through the grand wrought iron gates of our hotel. It was one of those amazing old heritage palaces with carved marble balconies, four-poster beds, three sausage dogs and an ancient German woman crocheting in a rocking chair on the lawn. We were practically panting with excitement at the thought of kicking back on a chaise longue with an ice old gin and tonic, but when the bellboy showed us to our rooms it turned out we were actually staying in some converted cowsheds. That’s right, the cowsheds. Oh well there was so much to do in Udaipur that we didn’t actually have to spend much time in our sheds. It mostly revolved around going from jewellery shop to chai shops and buying little embroidered camel leather shoes with bells on them. On our first evening we sat on the roof of an old haveli, overlooking the famous, floodlit palace hotel floating in the middle of the dark lake, drinking cocktails and wishing we could afford to stay there.

But you know, you can’t just spend every day shopping for camel leather and drinking cocktails (can you?), so the next day I decided to book us on a Royal Desert Horse Safari, with those lovely fancy Marwari horses. My mum will be so proud, I thought to myself as I booked the safari, the taxi and confidently told the man on the phone that I was a Very Experienced Horsewoman (I haven’t ridden a horse since I was 13 and discovered snogging and Bacardi Breezers). “You like running?” asked the man on the phone, “what you mean cantering? Oh god yeah, been doing that for years,” I said, imagining myself draped in diaphanous white linen, galloping across the desert planes into the sunset. “OK we give you very best horse, queen of horses madam,” he promised. The other girls will be so impressed, I thought smugly to myself.

In the end, it was just Claudia and me who turned up at the riding school, on a bright windy morning in the middle of the desert, inappropriately dressed in leggings and flimsy Top Shop trainers. We sat under a small tent with a few other tourists while the guides solemnly explained that the name Marwari actually means ‘from the land of death’ and that our horses were originally bred by the ancient Rajput clans for war, and are known for their hot tempers. They even used to rear up onto their hind legs to fight elephants – so not exactly like the fat old plodders I was used to riding in Barnet Riding Stables. They told us we would be absolutely fine as long as we didn’t make any sudden noises or movements, like talking too loudly or opening bottles of water. Claudia had never ridden before and started to get really nervous about falling off and smashing her head open, and then I started to get a bit nervous about being responsible if she did fall off and smash her head open. “Don’t worry, all we’ll be doing is sitting on a horse and looking at the lovely scenery,” I said, surreptitiously crossing my fingers and toes.

I started to regret my decision to tell them that I was a Very Experienced Horsewoman, when I was taken to one side and equipped with a giant pair of leather chaps. “Why am I the only one who has to wear these things?” I asked, buckling myself in. “Don’t worry, you are very experienced horsewoman – just a precaution,” said the guide. He then led me to the yard where an enormous prancing black and white mare was frantically pounding the earth with her hoof, frothing at the mouth and rolling her eyes. “Yikes,” I laughed nervously, “What the hell’s wrong with that one? She looks a bit mad!” “This is your horse, Puja,” he said, confusing my terrified expression for excitement. “She is very proud lady, like Queen. You have to earn her respect”.

I mounted her, while all the other riders looked on in horror. “Are you sure you want to ride that one Sarah, she looks fucking mental!” shouted Claudia from across the yard. “YES! SHE’S GREAT, HA HA, JUST A BIT FRISKY. NOTHING I CAN’T HANDLE!” I screeched, clinging on to the reins. “Shhhh, there’s a good girl Puja,” I whispered in her ear as she thrashed wildly at the bit. Fuck, she doesn’t understand English. “Don’t worry,” said the guide, “she is just a little upset because she hasn’t been exercised for two days and she didn’t have her breakfast this morning.” What? Isn’t that dangerous, I don’t even have any holiday insurance. “Ah right! No problem, I’ve handled much worse. Giddyup!” I said through clenched teeth, wishing desperately that it could all be over.

We began our trek into the desert with the midday sun beating down on us, my hands clenched tightly at the reins while Puja skipped, pranced and reared at the slightest flutter of a leaf. She was a bit like the horse version of Mariah Cary, throwing tantrums every five seconds and being completely mental. Every time she threw a hissy fit, the rest of the horses would rear or try and run off into the desert. One Australian girl started crying “Gemme orf oye wanna goy hoyyme! Oye wanna GOY HOYME!”. It was all my fault. “Sorry everyone!” I said, as Puja gnashed her teeth, “I don’t know what’s wrong with her!” “Puja want to run to Pakistan,” said one of the guides, fondly. “But she do not have passport! Ha ha ha!”

When we arrived back at the stables, after two of the most terrifying hours of my life, my hands were bleeding, and the two Australian girls were crying – and no longer on their horses. “We were very worried about you,” said the owner of the stables, “this wind is very dangerous, makes horses very, very crazy. You are lucky you are still in one pieces!”

In the rickshaw on the way back to our hotel, as I watched each of my fingers swell into giant blisters, I wondered how many more dangerous encounters with mother nature it would take before we’d paid off our bad karma? Surely it couldn’t get any worse than Puja?

Oh how wrong I was. That afternoon, as we relaxed in our cowshed, recovering from the stresses and reins of our adventures on horseback, I suddenly began to experience an ominous twisting in my guts. “I don’t feel very well,” said Claudia, almost simultaneously. She went grey, started groaning, broke out into a cold sweat and curled herself into the foetal position. My guts churned as I replayed the memory of that greasy, lukewarm 30rupee curry in Bundi, our dirty hands and the flies buzzing around our plates. Our friend Elisa poked her head around the door to find us in a pathetic, moaning heap on the bed and said, helpfully, ‘I knew it was a bad idea to go on that stupid horse ride’.

After 24 hours of, writhing, sweating, cramping and other unmentionable things, we finally arrived at the light at the end of the tunnel. There we were, lying pale and comatose in our cowshed, when we heard a little scratching at our door and the patter of tiny paws – and in burst the two little sausage dogs that belonged to our hotel (‘Sausie’ and ‘Weiny’). They jumped on our bed and curled up next to us, all warm and reassuring. I usually fucking hate dogs, but somehow I took it as a sign that all our troubles were over. Thank God, as a wise man once said (or was it Boy George?), that "karma comes and goes".

A holiday in the desert

It’s been quite a while since my last confession from India. I’d love to tell you that’s because I’ve been too busy writing my first novel, knocking-back gin and tonics on a tiger-skin rug and shouting at the maidservant, but the real problem is that I’ve become too settled into the Indian way of life – a bit like dirt in an old hippie’s heel. How can I write about the barefoot spiritual exiles of India when I am one of them?

It’s a worrying fact that my skin smells like chicken tikka, I wipe my bum with my left hand, wobble my head in answer to any question, have a shit haircut and can drink five chais in a row without blinking. I’ve been spiritually channelled, had my chakras rubbed down with paraffin oil on a dirty kitchen table, attended a candlelit-chanting workshop and was the most enthusiastic person there – ‘Om shanthi! Let me have a go on that tambourine, John!’ No joke. Last week I wore a turban ‘to keep my head cool’, and I call them fucking hippies?

It suddenly dawned on me: was I really so much better than those mad-eyed leathery freaks in faded psychedelic kaftans who have stayed here so long they re-christen themselves ‘Krishna’ and insist on wearing white robes and mala beads to Tescos when they go home?

So at the beginning of this month I decided that it was time to leave the Hari Rams and cheesecloth behind me and feel like a normal tourist again. Claudia was visiting from England so we flicked through her crisp new Lonely Planet for inspiration and booked a last-minute flight to Rajasthan. The guidebook called it The Land of Kings, a mystical desert-scape of maharajahs palaces, fortresses and, of course, shopping. It seemed far, far away from pious bongo-bangers of the South – and also I’d been after a camel leather bag for ages.

Flying into Jaipur was like landing on a different planet. The sky was bluer, the light harsher and the desert wind cracked our lips the minute we stepped off the plane. Everything was just a slightly amplified version of what I was used to.

Lipsticked ladies shimmied through the arrivals gate in sequinned neon saris and diamante heels, pushing over-loaded trolleys with arms like forklift truck drivers. In baggage claim I saw a guy in chai-stained white pyjamas retrieve a wicker basket of tiny yellow bananas from the revolving carousel. You can actually check-in bananas? He looked right back at me as if to say: “yeah bananas and so fucking what?”

Everything about our first couple of days in Jaipur was amazing as far as we were concerned. Delirious from all the desert sun, bangle-shopping and sickly saffron lassies, we were stupid to the point of putting ourselves in mortal danger on a daily basis. We ate every dubious lukewarm samosa from the street we could get our grubby hands on, piled four on the back of a rickety cycle rickshaws the wrong way down busy dual carriageways at night with no lights on; Claudia got too friendly with a paraplegic beggar selling wooden puppets and got her tits groped. “But I told him we were lesbians!” she said. I wonder why didn’t he get the message? I gave my email address to the pimple-faced hotel manager and two hours later found a string of romantic Facebook messages ‘to beuotiful Sarah. I am Nazeem hotel manager. I want to give you kiss ok, call me ok luv n hugs Naz xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx’.

We learned to expect the unexpected. Like on our third day when we decided to hire a ‘luxury’ car for the whole ten-day trip 1000km across Rajasthan – and the driver turned up three hours late and extremely pissed. “Erm I don’t mean to be rude,” I said to the travel agent, “but your driver stinks of whiskey, could it be that he is he drunk?” The driver stood swaying cross-eyed on the pavement next to the car, looking like he wanted to regurgitate something. “No not drunk. Just tired.” said the travel agent. Then an exchange took place in Hindi, which probably went something like:

Travel agent: “Put your tongue back in your mouth you stupid goat, you need to start acting like you’ve driven a car before and that I didn’t just peel you off the floor of a bar and bribe you with 100 rupees to drive these fussy foreign slutbags around for the next 10 days”.
Amir: “But shhir I’m sho sho drwunk, drwunker than a shkunk. My head ish shpinning, I feeling like yakking up my lunch and when I look at you I sshee three fat angry men inshtead of one. How can I drive when I can’t even shtand up? ”
Travel agent: “Drivers just need to sit there, smile and press the floor pedal thingy, butt plug. Keep quiet and I’ll tell them you just had one beer”.

“He only had one beer – for the festival. Don’t mind OK? Amir is very good man,” said the travel agent, slapping him on the back. “I’m sure Amir is a very nice man,” I said, patience thinning, “but he smells like he’s been on an intravenous Jack Daniels drip for the past 48 hours.” The travel agent scratched his arse and executed a chain of complex mathematical calculations in his head: “Better you open window, oxygen is good for smell”.

So we opened the windows, prayed, held on tight and everything was fine – until it got dark and Amir turned the headlights off to ‘save fuel’. I’m not sure how it happened but one minute the road was empty and the next minute we heard horns smack into the passenger window and saw a dazed-looking cow through the back windscreen, wobbling around in the middle of the motorway in the path of an oncoming goods lorry. The horn sounded and there was a sickening thud. He was probably fine right?

To be continued…

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Wheels on fire

What do you get if you cross 17 Indian teenage girls, 10 do-gooding foreign volunteers, 27 broken bikes, 100 villages, 70 schools, 800 kilometres, 4,800 trees, 2430 plates of rice, a few tonnes of curry and unspecified numbers of head lice? A big fat crazy beautiful, filthy dirty, tragic-comic Indian adventure - and here are some of my personal highlights.

On the 25th of May the Odanadi cycle jatha streamed through the gates of the Mysore Police Commissioner’s office, a peddling snake of sparkly white t-shirts with enthusiastic smiles, cheering and waving to the flash of a hundred journalists’ camera phones. The yellow silk Odanadi flag fluttered proudly from the window of our Jeep escort.

We felt invincible, confidant, bursting with a sense of purpose – but no more than seven seconds later the first girl went headfirst over handlebars and into the gutter. “Oh my god Anitha!” The team of concerned volunteers wailed. “No problem sister,” the Odanadi girls reassured, heads wobbling, “she has never ridden the cycle before isn’t it.” NEVER RIDDEN A CYCLE BEFORE? “How many other girls have never ridden a bicycle before?” Hands shot into the air. I felt sick, but Anitha casually peeled herself off the tarmac and swayed off into a stream of heavy traffic without looking and a lively ‘ding’ of her bicycle bell. Then I remembered: this is India. No rules, no brakes, no expectations, no need to worry, isn’t it?
Not exactly the most auspicious start to the cycle ride, but as we left the crowded highways of Mysore behind us and recovered from the first five accidents and a motorbike crash, we really began to get into our stride. Apartment blocks, belching lorries and supermarkets were replaced by green coconut groves, paddy fields and lumbering ox carts.

The lack of brakes, gears, general fitness and experience proved no obstacle to the resourceful Odanadi girls, who found time to stop at the bottom of every hill, chat to everyone we passed and still take a keen interest in the wellbeing of the foreigners. “Sister your face is red, but your body so white, why?” Because I’m hot. “But before cycle you looking so nice, now a little no-nice. Why?” BECAUSE WE'RE DESPERATELY TRYING NOT TO GET KILLED. On the first day the Volunteers learned that if you want to stay alive on an Indian road you have to follow the Indian ‘Highway Code’, which goes something like:
• Cows are God;
• Overtake everyone, especially on blind corners;
• Never ever check your wing mirrors, unless you are combing your hair and;
• Beep your horn loudly and often, especially if you have one of those fancy ones that plays a tune.

25 kilometres later we arrived at our first destination, just outside the village of Bilikere: two sheds in the middle of a building site. It wasn’t exactly the Savoy, but there was a (sort-of) roof and two barrels of cold water with unidentified bits floating in it. Undeterred, the Odanadi girls screamed, punched the air and jumped around in celebration of their month-long slumber party, while the volunteers looked a little stunned and began tentatively dipping jugs into the scummy ice-cold water for a ‘shower’. “Is this water filtered?” Definitely. “Mosquitoes?” No way. “And toilets?” Al fresco: in the left hand corner of the field where that piss-smell is coming from. As the sun went down over our rustic encampment, we ate cold chapattis with coconut chutney, lit a bonfire and the Odanadi girls sang and danced under the stars to the latest Bollywood song (“move ya move ya move baaaadey, shake ya shake ya shaaaaake ya baaadey”).

“Sister, now you do your country song and dance OK?” said 17 pairs of imploring eyes. At which point most volunteers made their excuses and collapsed on yoga mats, under thin cotton sheets – and prayed for their faces not to get eaten by mosquitoes, rats or cockroaches during the night.

But I don’t want to bore you with the gritty minutiae of every day – or it could start feeling like a month-long episode of Indian Big Brother, minus the booze and the big posh house. The first few days went by in a blur of sweaty cycling on pink bikes through lush paddy fields, remote villages and dusty towns, dodging herds of goats and trains of camels.

None of our cycles had gears – and most of them didn’t have brakes either, so there was a lot of stopping in the shade to recover from minor road accidents, broken chains, to dip cheap glucose biscuits in sweet cups of chai.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner (rice, rice and rice) was provided for us by supporters as we made our way through Karnataka: temples, monasteries, schools, community halls, NGOs, tribal organizations and government hostels. In return, we planted mango trees, performed songs and distributed leaflets to raise awareness about human trafficking.

We were hardly inconspicuous. Groups of skinny boys on motorbikes would zoom past smacking their lips at 30 female arses struggling up a hill. “SISTER!” the Odanadi girls would whine, “Those boys are ragging us!” In India “ragging” isn’t an Eighties paint-effect, it means someone taking the piss out of you. “Just ignore them,” I would say in my best do-gooding, stoic volunteer voice. But when you’ve been cycling uphill for 30 kilometres in 40 degree heat with a plastic saddle wedged up your arse crack and a greasy shitbag in a vegetable lorry starts blowing you kisses all you really want to say is ‘GO AND FUCK YOURSELF YOU FUCKING PERVERTS,’ but then I remembered we were NGO ambassadors and we had to set a good example and kept reminding myself that the closest most of these men have come to a Western woman is in porno mags and Fair and Lovely TV commercials. It’s not their fault TV has taught them that all Western women are whores.
Strange rumours about the cycle team would circulate in each village where we stopped. People would stand in doorways pointing at the “AMERICANS”. They were convinced that we were either Hollywood actresses or worked at The White House. “AFRICAN?” they would stage whisper, wagging their fingers at the black (Belgium) volunteer. “No Belgium,” she would explain. “No, you African,” they would insist. “And she - CHINESE” they would stage whisper and point at the Korean-American college student. Even the local Indian newspapers started running stories based on our group of Chinese, American and African Hollywood actresses and White House employees, with grinning photographs of us taken on mobile phones.

And it wasn’t just the locals who were bewildered. Over the course of 30 days Volunteers and Odanadi girls had a lot to learn about each other from each side of the cultural divide. For the most part we were one big happy family, but a few things were bound to get lost in translation. “Why you country peoples no marriage? Why toilet paper? Why red skin? Why pimples? Why reading book? Why no good cloth washing and dirty t shirts?” Some situations got pretty awkward. Like when one of the older female volunteers got stomach cramps, crouched by the side of the road to get water from her bag – and found that her emergency sachets of chocolate glucose syrup had exploded all over her hands. “Oh my god oh my god! Canadian sister has made loose motions, all over her hands!” whispered 17 girls, eyes bulging, cycling up and down the line making sure everyday knew just what was going on. The whole cycle ride was in uproar. “DO SOMETHING SISTER! Come quick, Canada Sister’s monthly-problem is coming all over her hands, she needs to take bath!” No, no don’t worry Canada sister has just got chocolate… oh never mind.
Bathing was another big issue on the cycle ride. Apparently the volunteers didn’t do it enough because we were determined to Rough It (“Sister please at least body washing? They would plead), while the Odanadi girls did it as much and as often as possible because most of them have Roughed It for their entire lives and the novelty had kind of worn off.
But bathing wasn’t the most comfortable experience for Western volunteers, used to mod cons like ‘taps’ and ‘privacy’.
About ten days before the end of the cycle, we were all allocated village families to stay with.

After a cosy night spooning in bed with two Odanadi girls, Sindhu, Ramya, the mother, daughter and their two mates from next door, the girls were keen to get me clean. “You first sister, ok?” They pointed to the corner of the dimly lit hut, where I could see a small concrete wall, surrounding a plughole and a bucket of water. “Where do I wash though?” It all suddenly became clear: I was going to have to crouch naked in the corner of a room full of strangers to wash in a bucket – while they all watched.

I tried not to look fazed as I casually took off all my clothes behind a small towel. How was I going to do this without offending them, without confirming all their worst suspicions about slutty Western women? Two heads poked around the concrete wall. “Sister, what is this?” they asked pointing at the towel. “Go a-way” I said, panicking and hastily splashing jug fulls of water under the soaking towel. My washing method wasn’t very convincing. Suddenly four more pairs of eyes joined them to watch the poor pale skinned prude desperately trying to save her battered dignity with dishcloth. “FINISHED!” I laughed, “it’s traditional to wash like this in England, we’re a very private nation.” When it was time for Sindhu and Ramya to wash, they simply took off all their clothes and stood naked while the mother of the family poured warm jugs of water over their hair. Then I felt really stupid.
Very little seemed to get under the skin of the Odanadi contingent, most of whom have been through a lot worse than hard floors and dirty toilets. Like when the entire cycle ride became infested with head lice.

“AAAAGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!” came the scream from down the corridor of a seedy government hostel where we were staying. It sounded like a Greek tragedy out there. “SISTER! American sister has head lice, she very crying,” explained an extremely bemused Shamala. “She is telling she has disease and she wants to go back to America. Why?” Every volunteer started panicking. “No one told us the girls have head lice, how could this have happened?’ came the cries. We gathered everyone in a room. “OK, who here has head lice?” I asked the girls to raise their hands. “ME SISTER!” came a chorus of seventeen voices.

In India, death, disease and head lice are always pretty close at hand. There’s no escaping the harsh realities of life, as the team of plucky volunteers discovered one Saturday morning when we woke to the scream 20 goats being sacrificed in the temple next door to our hostel. In a matter of seconds everyone crowded around to watch the next quivering victim, rope tied round its neck, flailing desperately in a bright pool of blood. “THAT’S DISGUSTING!” the volunteers wailed, as a couple of dogs started nonchalantly lapping at the pools of gore on the temple steps. “Yes sister,’ agreed the Odanadi girls, unconvincingly. “Look sister, knife is coming,’ said Anitha, who is perhaps the most unflappable girl on the planet. The butcher held a huge rusting machete over the goat’s neck and tapped it slowly. “One, two, three…dead,” said Anitha calmly, as the knife came down and sliced its head clean off. I stared transfixed as the headless body of the goat twitched violently and tried to make a run for it. “Don’t worry sister,” said Anitha, “body still moving, but goat is dead”.
But unlike the goats, the Odanadi cycle jatha made it back into the city of Mysore with bodies, bikes and sanity (almost) in tact. The last afternoon was never-ending. Struggling against monsoon wind and rain we cycled around the busy ring road with punctures, broken pedals and a missing saddle.

But finally at about 6pm, as we rode across the dusty scrubland with the pelting rain in our eyes, the white roof of Odanadi came into view. My legs were jelly and my nerves were in tatters, but as we got closer, we heard the sound of 60 Odanadi children screaming and cheering from outside the gates, “welcome home sisters!”

Afterwards I felt like the goat: body still moving, but dead. I didn’t even cycle for the full 30 days, but for those that did I was amazed that despite rainstorms, heatwaves, accidents, injuries, cold floors, cold buckets – everyone survived. The volunteers who had never been to India before, the Odanadi girls who had never ridden a bike before; victims of brothels, pimps, gutters and worse – they all made it. In fact it was such a success the Odanadi founders are thinking about doing a cycle ride for the mentally ill residents next year. Any takers?

Friday, 29 May 2009

My first brothel raid

Last week, on a humid afternoon in Mysore, Odanadi rescued 12 female sex workers from two windowless dungeons, no bigger than toilet cubicles. They had been kept crouching in the dark for more 14 days, hidden behind false walls in the back of two roadside restaurants on the Bangalore to Mysore highway. I want to describe to you what I saw there so you can understand a bit more about what Odanadi is fighting against – and the reasons why your support is so crucial.

By the time we arrived late on Monday the raid was over; secret trapdoors had been smashed open and the girls released: seven from one hiding place and five from another. Two police vans were already there. Khaki-clad officers stood shouting into mobile phones and questioning the crowd of restaurant employees milling in the dusty forecourt.
The place didn’t look anything like a brothel to me: no red lights and seedy boudoirs, just two nondescript restaurants sitting on either side of the highway, with the usual corrugated iron rooves and cheap plastic garden furniture. These are the kind of places you stop for a lukewarm Coke on the way to Bangalore – not the kind that place you’d imagine to be the centre of an illegal sex trafficking ring.
We were there just in time to see the 12 girls, mainly from Bangaldesh and Calcutta, filing out from the restaurant, squinting in the daylight and clutching grubby shawls to their faces. Some of them were crying. Others just peered blankly through the back window of the police Jeep, looking at us with a mixture shock and shame.

Somewhere during the mayhem of the girls leaving, Odanadi founders Stanly and Parashu ushered us through the maze of filthy bedrooms, corridors and kitchens at the back of the first restaurant. We came to a disused room with a small trapdoor set into the wall at knee-height. Outside a tangle of clothes lay amongst dirty plates, high-heeled shoes and discarded condom boxes. We had just enough time to stick our heads into the dank 6 x 4 foot hole. It stank of human bodies, piss and old food. Dark stains splashed up one wall and the odd, sad item of clothing lying abandoned on the floor. There wouldn’t have even been enough room for more then one of them to lie down and sleep.

We left the first restaurant and had just enough time to run over the road to see where the other five girls were being kept, before the police noticed we were gone. Up a squalid, urine-stained staircase and along a corridor of empty, unmade bedrooms, we arrived at the last room to find a bright blue trapdoor positioned under a shelf. Inside was a dirty squat toilet in a cubicle barely big enough for two people to stand up in – and yet it had been home to five grown women for more than two weeks. It was like something out of a horror film.

Just as we ran back down the stairs, we saw a man who had been sleeping in one of the bedrooms dragged outside and thrown into a police Jeep. The owners of the restaurants were nowhere to be seen.
Since then we have found out that most the girls travelled to Mysore willingly, under the instructions of a pimp or ‘agent’. They had been secretly working as prostitutes at the restaurant to earn some fast cash. One of them had been thrown out by her husband for having a miscarriage; another girl’s husband had sold her into prostitution himself. Many more of them had families to feed – families who believed them to be working as domestic servants and nannies. They had come from Bombay, Calcutta and Bangladesh with the promise of a generous monthly ‘salary’. They saw between five and eight customers per-day who would take them out to a hotel for an hour and then bring them back. In reality the girls received no money from the restaurant owners, but were given a small budget to adorn themselves with new clothes, cheap imitation gold and brightly coloured nail polish.
As the situation stands, the five Indian girls have had counselling and are being transferred to another rehabilitation centre in Bangalore. Odanadi is still working for the release of eight Bangladeshi girls from jail, where they are currently being held by police for not having passports or the relevant immigration documents.
So far there aren’t any happy endings or quick solutions for these girls, but just being allowed a glimpse of what they went through was enough to remind me just how important the work that Odanadi does is.