Margaret Hardy - Volunteering in India

In January 2010, Margaret went off to India for two months, as a volunteer on a conservation project. These notes are recorded by Paul on her behalf, based on phone calls during her stay.

Jump to particular week: Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6Week 7Week 8Week 9 Pictures available in a Google (Picassa)web album]


The trip was arranged through Projects Abroad, which runs projects in different disciplines (education, medicine, conservation,...) in various parts of the world, mainly for gap year graduates from different countries. Although Margaret has been a teacher for most her career, she wanted to do something different, so went for conservation - not totally new to her, as she was the national coordinator for forest education in Britain for six years, as well as being the Education Manager for the US National Children's Forest when we were living in California.

Ullar Rice fields
The conservation project in India is based in the village of Ullar, near the town of Rajapalayam in Tamil Nadu, at 9.4N, 77.5E. This is down the bottom of India, on the Tamil plain just to the right of the Western Ghat mountains that form the spine of India. Mail address is: Margaret Hardy c/o Mr V Shanmuga Durai; 141 51a Tenkasi Main Road; Ullar, Rayagiri Post; Sivagiri Taluk, Tirunelveli District; Tamil Nadu; India. Ullar is on the Madurai to Tenkasi main road, between Sivagiri and Vasudevanallur. You can see the village here in Google Maps.

Note: Margaret might have moved (but didn't) for the later stages to a teaching placement in Madurai, so an alternative address was that of the Projects Abroad office there: Margaret Hardy, Projects Abroad; No 12,77,1A, 2nd Floor; Pasumalai; Madurai - 625004; Tamil Nadu; India.

Week 1 - Travels, arrivals, and settling in

Paul took Margaret to Heathrow on New Year's Day, for an evening flight to Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Entering India and changing terminals, she flew to Chennai (formerly Madras), and on again to Madurai, where she was met by a local representative. Staying in a hostel overnight in Madurai, she eventually arrived in Ullar on the afternoon of the 3rd Jan.

She is hosted in a shared room in a local's house - the roommate turns out to be a German woman called Heidi of similar age. Meals are taken with another local family - totally vegetarian diet, and no alcohol! Breakfast is at 8, lunch at 1 and dinner at 7.30. Work on the farm is nominally 9:30 to 12:30 and 2:30 to 4:30. There are also two Australian girls and a French man on the project as well as three local men on the farm. and she is told that there will be a number of British young people arriving later in the month.

Paul had ensured that Margaret had a both her usual UK mobile phone, but also a spare phone, and she had acquired an Indian SIM in Madurai (+91 994 393 4350) so was relieved to find that there is good mobile signal coverage in Ullar - better in fact than at home in Comberton! Communication with Paul was established by text messages and voice calls every couple of days.

The project is based on a model farm in the village, which grows vegetables, herbs and staples, as well as a few goats/sheep, but will involve visits to neighbouring villages. The aim is to introduce locals to 'best practice' in agriculture, as well as doing 'good works' projects. In the past they have also done tree planting to reverse the deforestation that endangers India. One of Margaret's first jobs was shifting cow dung to make 'vermicompost' which then gets sold in a local market. She has also washed sheep, and painted signboards. Madhan is the coordinator, Mariappan the deputy, Thrippaddy the gardener, and Durai is supervisor. See some photos of the team and the local market, taken by a previous volunteer.

After a couple of days, she is beginning to get used to the heat - not too bad at 30C, as it is mid-winter, but is on the hunt for better footware - some local sandals. The opportunity comes on Thursday, when she goes by bus into Rajapalayam to help in the market in the morning, and do some shopping, putting money on the mobile, and an abortive attempt to send email from an Internet cafe (Margaret and technology don't mix!). She also experienced Indian bureaucracy in helping another volunteer to post a parcel - which seemed to involve buying cloth to wrap the parcel and visiting a tailor to get it sewn up, plus a hair-raising rickshaw ride and at least two visits to the post office. Changing money also apparently required being interviewed twice by the bank manager!

The first weekend, all the volunteers in the area are gathering for a 'dirty weekend' in Madurai (55 miles away and three hours by bus), which Margaret assures us is actually a crash project to renovate and redecorate an orphanage, and to build a vegetable garden for it. We'll report further on this after the event. Some of the other weekends have outings planned to Kerala, Munnar, Kodaikanal and Kollam, so she should see more than just the local villages and towns.

Week 2 - Madurai, village life and Pongal festival

Well, Margaret has survived the trip by two buses and 3 hours each way to Madurai for her 'dirty weekend' which was hard work but enjoyable, as well as seeing some more of the real India. Her room- mate Heidi was butted and knocked down by a cow crossing a street in Madurai (no serious harm). Being holy to the Hindus, they roam everywhere and do as they please!

Some of the project volunteers redecorated the boys orphanage school, and Margaret and others built, composted and planted a vegetable garden (tomatoes, chilies, cauliflowers, brinjal, medicinal plants, etc). Margaret however worries that the goats and chickens may eat the seedlings before they grow! It rained overnight, so at least they are watered in. In between the work they managed to get a more western meal in a hotel, with fish (curry), but also a Kingfisher beer! She also got stuck in the hotel lift (again - she did that at the Adelphi in Liverpool!).

On the Sunday morning they rose early and went to the Meenakshi temple for which Madurai is famous, and it was reported as duly spectacular. See view and closeup. She wasn't allowed into the inner sanctums, not being a Hindu, but was impressed by what she saw. She got a new blouse made to go with a sari that we bought years ago on our first trip to India, so is blending in with the locals more.

Some of you asked about seeing Margaret's photos of her trip. She has taken a digital camera (and a disposable 35mm as backup), but given Margaret's love (or lack of) of technology, I'm not expecting to see any of them until she returns. We'll then put together an online album. In the interim, I'll put in some links to some web resources with pictures of the area and activities. [Note - some photos added here on her return - more now available as a Google (Picassa) web album]. She has however managed to put more credit on her Indian mobile phone sim, despite then being interrogated by the Indian government because the name (hers) on the passport used as ID (required when doing such transactions) didn't match the name when the sim was bought (by an Indian project staff member). Bureaucracy in India is amazing!

Returning to Ullar, she is back to local diet. She eats with a family in the village (five people, over three generations, living in two rooms). Lakshmi's cooking is very good, but it's much the same for all three meals. Rice, naan bread, chapati, or occasionally noodles, always two vegetable sauces, pickles, lots of coconut. Not too hot, but lots of spices. They eat off metal plates, but the locals eat off banana leaves (easily recycled as biodegradable!). Dessert is fruit (banana, lovely pineapple etc), although unfortunately the papayas that they grow are not currently in season. Drink is chai (tea) boiled up with milk and sugar. Temperatures are 30-35, not unpleasant, except when it has rained.

Monday, she has been out to a school in a nearby town/village (Srivilliputter) for the first day (preparation) of the 'Pongal' festival which will take up most of the week. Pongal is the Tamil winter and harvest festival. Pongal means to boil over, and at the school the older girls made a special dish from rice, cardamom, sultanas, coconut cane sugar and milk. This is put into a newly made pot on the fire, and when it boils over everyone who sees it happen shouts out 'Pongal' and claims good luck. Margaret did a bit of teaching about nearest equivalent Harvest Festival and Corn Dollies in England. The older children understood some English, but the headteacher translated into Tamil for the younger ones. She was given a garland of flowers and a glass bracelet, and the reception class did a tableau of a farmer's year, and the older girls did dances on a harvest theme in beautiful costumes. A good time was had by all!

Tuesday, a school party came to the farm - children all barefoot, but well behaved. They were shown composting techniques, and medicinal plants. Margaret had put together a game involving pictures of things good and bad for plants (bees good, caterpillars bad, etc). One of the other volunteers had drawn accompanying illustrations. Discussion strayed into Global Warming, so that is also known there. Another rainstorm overnight, so humid Wednesday. Had 'sweet breakfast' - noodles with sugar cane. Moved more cow dung - farm has 3 cows and two sheep/goats (seems unsure which - called sheep but have hair not fleece). Sheep are silly and keep getting their ropes tied around things. Saw 20cm long millipede in toilet - stripy with fangs!

Thursday is the main Pongal day holiday. Margaret was up at 5:30, for the dawn Pongal-cooking ritual. It was cooked outside in two big new pots. Margaret remarks that it's hard to eat rice pudding with your fingers! More ritual involved putting coals from the fire with camphor into a bowl and wafting smoke to give good luck ('Holy Smoke!'). As part of the ritual, before the cooking, all the houses have fancy patterns drawn in rice powder, called Pongal Kolam. It's a day when everyone wears new clothes, usually given as gifts within the family, for the start of the new farming year.

Cow Pongal
Friday was 'Cow Pongal' (Mattu Pongal) when cows are washed, decorated and honoured with a 'puja'. There are some excellent photos of this festival in this blog, giving a feel for the environment that Margaret is immersed in. Margaret took part in a family event in the local village. A cow, calf and bull were washed, and then the cowshed washed, The animals had their horns painted, and flowers put on them (unfortunately the cow ate hers!). Kolam patterns were drawn in rice powder on the cowshed floor and outside, the cow was milked, and the milk used to make Pongal, which was cooked in the shed and eaten (after more wafting of smoke for luck).

On Friday afternoon Margaret headed off for a weekend trip to Kovalam in Kerala, where we holidayed some years ago. This involves a series of cramped long bus journeys, so anticipated with trepidation, but I spoke to her on the bus (aren't mobile phones wonderful!) and she did have a seat by a 'window' (no glass!), so should see lots as she travels over the mountains to Trivandrum. There were over 100 people packed onto the previous bus (Ullar to Tenkasi) and this one is apparently going for a similar density! More on this trip next week.

Week 3 - Kerala by bus, village schools, Ganesh

Kovalam was rather more developed than when we went there in 1996, but still had beautiful tropical beaches, with spectacular sunsets over the palm-fringed Indian ocean. The group had a western meal (expensive) and Margaret managed to locate a gin and tonic!

The next day they walked down to the fishing village in the next bay, and saw the locals 'walking' their narrow wooden fishing boats down the beach as they have done for centuries. The boat involved ten men and six oars, but the catch on return was minimal however - one fish! The seas around India have been depleted, as elsewhere in the world.

The return trip to Ullar was typically Indian, involving taxi, two buses and a rickshaw. Sod's law meant that they missed the bus from Trivandrum to Tenkasi by 3 minutes, and next wasn't for nearly two hours. They passed the time watching the world go by in the bus station from a rather swish coffee house built in a spiral with Mogul decor and waiters dressed as servants in a Maharajah's palace! Real contrast to the locals below. They were able to reserve seats on the bus for 2 Rupees (about 3p!). There are separate seat areas for ladies on bus, but as a foreigner and old enough, Margaret is allowed to be an honorary man, but still had to hold someone's baby for part of the trip. She reports that bus drivers have no concept of 'this bus is full' - they's still stop if someone is by the road, even if people are hanging out the door!. The views on the return trip were again interesting - sheets of latex from rubber trees hanging to dry, teak logs being removed from the forest, lots of monkeys and goats.

Monday was back on the model farm, weeding and planting. On Tuesday, they were at a village school near Vasu. It had 95 children aged 3-10 in 3 classes. The kids sat on the floor. There was a low blackboard all round the bottom of the wall and each kid had a marked area on which to do their work (no exercise books to write in), although they did have laminated cards with lesson material. Margaret ran an educational game and the older kids practiced their English on her. There was a good atmosphere - kids keen to learn. There had been a teacher-trainer there "Teachers are to facilitate learning". School day is 9-4 and lunch is provided free.

Margaret had bought a couple of Indian 'salwar' outfits in Luton before going - light trousers, blouse and scarf, and these have been very useful as alternative to western dress or the sari. The blouse (choli) that she had made last week to go with her sari has been criticised by the family as 'too loose', but seems fine to her.

Wednesday more farm - they washed some sheep (Margaret said they looked shocked), and she is training one to walk to heel, as at Crufts (dogsheep rather than sheepdog?).

Thursday was the holy day of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god found all over India, so there were bells and incantations at dawn, with a Brahmin (high caste) in yellow robes. As they (the volunteers, not the Brahmins) go to bed at 9:30, it wasn't too early! Also on Thursday she set off on a long trip, firstly to Rajapalayam for market, then by train (24 Rupees or 30p) to Madurai (stayed in a basic room at 2 a night!), then another train to Rameswaram. Everywhere from the train is a jumble of tradition and modern - thatched roof, woven palm walls, and satellite dish! TV is very important.

Week 4 - Rameswaram, CCD, Republic Day

Rameswaram, on the Eastern coast, is at the closest point to Sri Lanka, with a natural bridge of coral atolls almost joining the two together. It is a major Hindu religious pilgrimage city, holy to Shiva and Rama. People come from all over India, wash in the sea, discard their clothes, and put on fresh - so there are piles of old clothes everywhere! Margaret visited the Ramanathaswamy Temple - that article has some photos of people (and cows) taking their holy bath.

Margaret has been impressed by the way that wherever she has been, there has been a good mobile phone signal, and lots of locals using mobiles - she says that the mobile is a new god to add to the thousands already worshipped by the Hindus! Mind you, they are getting the bad with the good - one of Margaret's local project staff got a call saying that he'd won a million pounds on a (British) lottery, and she had to break it to him that it was almost certainly a scam!

Leaving Rameswaram, they returned to Madurai by train, sufficiently crowded that a man was asleep in the luggage rack - Margaret commented that neither end was particularly pleasant to sit under, but the head was better than the bottom! Their room in cheap hotel was dire, but they had a nice meal and breakfast in the Residency (posh hotel). Margaret bought two Geoffrey Archer books, as reading matter in English is in short supply. They then went on by car as one of their number was ill - Margaret seems so far to be avoiding local bugs. Some of the dirt road is waiting to be paved - piles of rock to negotiate.

Next stop was to another conservation project - this was run by the Covenant Centre for Development or CCD, which works with 150 villages. The particular project had been established in 1995 to get women working so that their children could go to school rather than having to work on things like collecting rubbish to bring in some money. Margaret says that it had seen better days - there used to be a small factory making medicines but that had closed. However, on 33 acres they grow 50,000 medicinal plants which they sell to pharmaceutical companies, and cotton which is spun and woven on site. Margaret says that the night there was the most basic accommodation so far, but also it was the quietest - silence is rare in India!

The local school had 85 pupils, and Margaret got involved in their Republic Day celebrations (it all seems to be festivals in India!). After prayers and Indian National Anthem, they unfurled the flag (filled with rose petals). Older children did drill exercise display. Then lots of games - eating sweets from plate covered in rice flour (winning strategy - blow off the flour first), thread a needle then hop to finish line, musical chairs, etc.

Returning to Ullar via Madurai involved rickshaw, bus, train. She saw one motorbike with four people on it, and another with one man and two live goats! In their absence from the farm, the sheep had eaten the roses and the hibiscus, and nobody had watered their seedlings - she isn't very impressed with the dedication of the local employees, or the sustainability of the project. Margaret is wondering about asking for a transfer to a teaching project in Madurai, as there are eight new young volunteers arriving at the farm. I'll report back when I know more, but if you were thinking of sending anything to her, hold off for the moment and see if she moves.

Task of the day at the farm involved separating vermicompost, which Margaret described as "giving worms concussion". On Thursday, they shipped the bagged compost to market in Rajapalayam. Margaret went to help sell, and then they set off for the next weekend jaunt to the hill station of Kodaikanal. More on this next week.They took the train to Madurai and stayed overnight in the YMCA, then bus up into the hills (with child asleep across Margaret's lap most of the way - seats are in short supply).

Week 5 - Kodaikanal, Ullar, and possible move to Madurai

Kodaikanal is a town high (6000ft) in the Western Ghat mountains that form the spine of India. It was created in the 19th century as a hill station - a cooler retreat away from the heat of the Indian plains below. The town is surrounded by forests of eucalyptus, mimosa and pine (not very native!), planted to stop erosion after extensive deforestation. They did an enjoyable three-hour hike to a waterfall - scenery was spectacular but the trail was somewhat hazardous - Margaret wished she had her walking poles.

Margaret reports that at night it was indeed cold, and with cloud at ground level she has worn her fleece for the first time. She also wishes that she had taken an inflatable mattress, as beds are very hard! Other items that she regrets not taking with her are hair conditioner and laxatives! Return trip to Ullar took seven hours, involving taxi, rickshaw and three buses. Margaret says she will need a holiday when back in England, as there has been a lot of travel - enjoyable but exhausting. Temperatures in Ullar are 30C hotter than in Kodaikanal!

Back on the farm, the task of the day is to spray plants with an organic insect repellent and fertiliser (Panchagavya) - main ingredients seem to be cow urine, dung and ghee (rancid butter), so not just repellent to insects! The locals are harvesting rice - cutting and laying in rows to dry, then winnowing it using a triangular basket. The area is very productive - they get four crops a year. As well as rice, they farm coconut, banana, mango and sugar cane. However they don't seem to grow vegetables much, even for home use, and Margaret thinks that they should. Now they have several more volunteers (12 people!), the next task is to replant a vegetable garden on the model farm that had fallen into disuse. However, Margaret suspects the goats and cows will eat the crops, as the hedging has been removed.

Tuesday, they have planted trees beside the main road. The seedlings were grown on the model farm. They were watered in well with water from three wells - all big and deep, with steps down, but now water is pumped up into irrigation channels. Margaret is not convinced that the trees will survive as there seems no plan for keeping them watered until established. Water is carried in plastic pots that are shaped like their pottery traditional predecessors, but not well made, so often split and leaking.

Minor crisis of the day is that there is a shortage of loo paper - the local small town (Vasu) has none (the locals don't use it). Margaret doesn't often see the family who live in the house where her room is, but they are wealthy enough to have inside toilet and running water. They also employ people to do specific tasks - a worker has just been with a trolley and a large iron filled with hot coals, and done all the ironing outside the house. She has just seen the arrival of automation on the local farms - a combined harvester has appeared (but still followed by people with winnowing baskets to get the last rice out). This is alongside people using water buffalo for ploughing, and a lot of hand cultivation.

A visitor to the farm who is one of the local coordinators in Madurai has finally noticed that Margaret has been involved in trees and forest education, and wants to ask her about it. However, she has just heard that she may be able to transfer to a teaching placement, and thinks she would like to do so, to be contributing more. It would be in Madurai, but location and date of move unknown.

Margaret's sari blouse has been retailored for the cost of 25 Rupees - about 30p. Lakshmi has given her a lesson in how to drape the Sari - the problem is that Margaret is several inches taller than the average Tamil. She also enjoyed a cooking lesson, with Lakshmi going through what was involved in preparing the evening meal - cooking takes a long time - at least two hours for preparation and cooking. Margaret took one of the farm staff to task for saying that Lakshmi did no work - apparently organising, buying, preparing and cooking for a dozen people plus her own family is something that a woman can just do in spare time!

The group have spent Friday morning in Rajapalayam, visiting a factory Aravindh Herbal Laboratories making products from seeds, roots, leaves and petals of medicinal and herbal plants. They create 400 different products (not just medicines, but hair restorers and dyes), from 500 types of plant, employing 110 employees. The plants are sourced from local farmers and specific nurseries. Margaret thinks that the model farm could supply it too.

They travelled from Ullar in a minibus, lined with artificial fur - ('like a squashed ocelot'), and with a TV showing a Bollywood film (with English subtitles) apparently shot in New England in the fall, and in the Swiss Alps, which Margaret felt was bizarre! The minibus ran out of fuel on way back, so journey completed by local car. On the road, there is no concept of waiting to pass a slower vehicle - just press on the horn and do it immediately, causing an old woman with pile of wood on head to leap off into ditch. The loo paper saga continues - none in Rajapalayam either, so Margaret has a copy of 'The Hindu' newspaper (in English), to be read then 'recycled'. Margaret has a cough, and is staying in Ullar over the weekend, while other volunteers head off to Madurai (or one couple to explore by motorbike).

As of Friday, she is still waiting for news about her possible teaching placement - Margaret wants to be with an Indian family rather than in the YMCA in Madurai. Margaret sees the mark of the British Civil Service and administration in India - everything is organised on a two-year plan, and not very adaptable! She comments that India is much dirtier than when we first went, mainly due to plastic bags and other discarded items blown everywhere and not rotting. In the past everything was recycled by the cows and goats, but they don't eat plastic!

Week 6 - Ullar, all change at the Farm

Margaret is feeling happier in Ullar after a peaceful weekend, and is now unlikely to move to Madurai (particularly as they haven't come up with any sensible placement). On Saturday she walked by herself towards the east along a side road from Ullar - no traffic other than an occasional truck piled high with crops or goods. Local crops that she has been consuming include bananas and pineapple (very nice) - there would be papaya and mango at other times of year. Coconuts falling off trees are an occupational hazard - coconut milk is used a lot in the cooking, but coconut flesh is rarely served as a food. Wildlife involves lots of cattle egrets, and noisy black crows. The visible wild mammals look like chipmunks but are probably squirrels.

On Sunday she walked in the other direction - west towards the hills. Blue sky, clouds, but getting hot. Walk was lovely - view of mountains, twisty road, streams and water channels for irrigation, a few poor houses, birds and butterflies. The latter like the Lantana (butterfly bush) - one of the many shrubs abounding. Main transport is 'sit up and beg' style bicycles - farmers heading off to field with their curved machete, called an Aruval, or coming back piled high with greenery to feed the animals. One such farmer stopped to offer her a lift, sitting sidesaddle on the luggage carrier over the rear wheel, as the locals do. Another offer of lift came from a motorbike that already had two people on!

The locals stare at you, not particularly because you are white, but that you are walking without a purpose - not carrying anything on your head - water, bundles of firewood, vegetation for animals, etc. The children come and practice their English on you.

Margaret has a cough, which she has had for a week and is getting worse, so is about to start taking the antibiotics that she brought with her - prescribed because she has bronchiextasis after a previous lung infection (Haemophilus influenzae) that took months to be diagnosed when she returned from the USA to England in 2006, leaving her with expanded lungs and half a lung not working.

Monday, and there has been a shakeup at the farm. Madhan is moving to another job in Madurai, and Mr Pandi (a previous manager there, but more recently the care coordinator) is returning to lead. Today there is a school visit, and Margaret is organising. It's a group of 11-13 year olds - well behaved - not so obviously the angst and attitude that affects that age band in the west. They are taught about organic farming, and told to explain it to their parents.

Wednesday - definitely change afoot - the Director of Projects Abroad visited the farm today, and they are being reorganised into four teams - farming, education, commerce and information. Margaret is leading the education team along with an assigned local. So, Margaret will not be moving to Madurai. The visit by a VIP produced chai and biscuits, so they've asked to get that once a week even if no director present! They are becoming even more environmental - rather than plastic sacks for the compost they sell, it is now wrapped in biodegradable paper, tied with string made from stripped banana leaves.

A pedlar came to the village today, selling baubles, bangles and beads from a tiny mobile shop towed by bicycle. The sheep made a bid for freedom - having been foolishly let loose in the farm by one of the local workers (where they would eat and trample the seedlings), they worked through the fence into the field next door where rice had been harvested, and thence onto the main road (at risk of life and limb), but were eventually rounded up, and returned to their pen, looking somewhat abashed.

Cow Pongal
Thursday has been a hard work day, but most satisfying so far - watering 7:00-8:30, breakfast 8:45, back on farm at 9:30 doing a big spring clean. A tinker came by today, on bicycle (of course), covered in pots, pans and vessels, both aluminium and plastic. He takes leaking plastic pots off for recycling. Margaret was persuaded to eat a banana flower - supposedly good for the waterworks - cost 5R (4p), but not much eatable, and she wouldn't rush off to buy another. Cow lady who looks after the farm's cows (they have a field, shed and water across the main road) has wandered off with the wastebasket and dustpan (not for their original purpose - things get 'recycled' to other uses).

Evening, and Margaret is sitting on balcony - I can hear the bird song. She says that a bird (black with white wings) has been eating a papaya on the tree in front of her. She thinks that being a bird in Tamil Nadu would be quite a good life. Lots of cattle egrets following the farmer ploughing the rice field.

This weekend Margaret will join the trip to Munnar and Periyar up in the hills. More on this next week.

Week 7 - Munnar, school visit at Ullar

Arrived in Munnar eventually, after another long bus trip via Theni, ascending into Western Ghat mountains to nearly 8000ft. Margaret and I visited Munnar several years ago, and Margaret says that the town and area around is still lovely, with the hilly landscape dominated by tea bushes. She remembers some bits of the area, but there has been considerable development.

On the way up, the bus was delayed by a demonstration blocking the road with tyres, apparently protesting that a child bitten by a snake had been refused treatment by a hospital as parents too poor to pay. Purpose was probably to ensure that it got into local newspaper. After 45 mins the tyres were removed and things progressed, but caused them to miss their connection in Theni, and hence arrive in Munnar after dark. However, the wait was spent in an air-conditioned cool waiting room - bliss!

Saturday they took jeeps up to the top station for spectacular views, visiting a tea plantation and a lake (probably Mattuppetty). Some of the group were then going for an elephant ride into the eucalyptus forest - those Australian weeds get everywhere. In this case the seeds were apparently smuggled back from Australia hidden in the stockings of a tea plantation owner's wife - not clear if she was wearing the stockings at the time!

Margaret is not enthused by being on an elephant (she's done it twice before), so went into the town instead and wandered among the spice shops and vegetable market. It's not for nothing that these are known as the 'Spice Hills', lots of pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, vanilla, etc. They didn't get to Periyar, as too far, and another park (Nilgiri?) was shut for stabilisation of erosion, but she enjoyed the trip, including the bus journey back, descending the twisting road with views across the plains, with temples on hilltops.

Back in Ullar, her German roommate has left, and so Margaret has moved into the neighbouring room, shared with an 18 year old Australian girl (Ella). This room has an 'en-suite' loo with a pedestal (rather than previous hole to squat over). It has no flush - just pour bucket of water down it. However the loo seat is split and threatens to nip delicate parts. After installing mosquito net in new room and retiring to bed, a brick holding it up fell onto pillow inches from Margaret's head - lucky escape.

The volunteers are now watering the newly planted trees along the highway at 7am before breakfast and the heat of the day. However, many are dead, having been eaten by cows, goats etc. Margaret is campaigning for simple tree-guards (sticks and sackcloth) - apparently they had some proper metal tree guards before, but the locals 'recycled' them for other uses. A drip feed watering system is to be installed in the farm to preserve the seedlings from the otherwise erratic watering regime. The next field which was having rice harvested two weeks ago, has been ploughed, flooded and replanted - two-week turnaround - allows them four crops a year!

Local doctor visiting the farm has shown them how he makes traditional medicines - boiling up aloes with cumin, ginger, peppercorns etc. She's tried juice of aloe with palm sugar but not impressed. Margaret's cough seems to have cleared up, so not asking for local remedy.

Went to Rajapalayam to get wax crayons, paper and clipboards for visit to farm by local school. Some confusion on return trip because 'Ullar' apparently means 'inside' in Tamil, as well as being name of village. Local market has come up with a replacement loo seat - crude but serviceable, so all well again. New room is quieter, as away from main road. Another poisonous millipede (big, black and red with fangs) has been spotted in her old room, but has been successfully translocated. More interesting wildlife was also spotted - two otters in the 'India- shaped' pond on the farm. It's not clear if they were the Smooth-coated Otter (Lutrogale Perspicillata), or the Eurasian Otter (Lutra Lutra), but both are listed as endangered by the Indian government.

School at Farm
School visit went well - 26 kids aged 4-10. Margaret went down to school to walk them to the farm (down hazardous main road!) - school is poor but well cared for. Each kid took a plant home plus their own rubbing of a leaf (like a brass-rubbing, but a curry-rubbing instead).

This weekend, the young ones are going to Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India, but Margaret is going off up into the spice hills again, to Kumily - 3 buses and 5 hours away! She's going by herself, so this will be an adventure!

Incidentally, I've finally tracked down where Ullar is (thank you Wikimapia), so there is a link to a Google map of the area in the introduction section at the top of this document.

Week 8 - Kumily, Thekkady, Periyar

Margaret arrived safely in Kumily. This is adjacent to Periyar National Park, and Thekkady tiger sanctuary. She met by chance Colette that she shared a room the first night in India, so has had company. She was up at 6am for a wildlife walk in the sanctuary. Saw deer, boar, two wild elephants, a long-tailed lemur, giant Malabar squirrel, a woodpecker and other birds. Also lots of different trees - baobab etc.

Met Colette for boat trip on Periyar lake, and saw more boar, more elephants, wild bison, a tortoise and a kingfisher. Colette had done a different hike and encountered fresh tiger scat - evidence that the tiger had been eating deer! Seeing an actual tiger is pretty rare - they hide well. At lunch time, a monkey stole Colette's dosa and shot off to eat it in a tree. The cafe provided a free replacement and an apology!

Margaret replenished her money stock from an ATM as Kumily is a tourist town, and hence was able to pay to go to a Kathakali dance evening - the preparations with makeup, masks and costumes were more interesting than the actual dances, though it did help that someone explained the meanings of the hand gestures and facial expressions. Dinner had good fish, and included a kingfisher beer. Margaret had the best night's sleep in a while - very quiet, other than monkeys chattering. Return journey by bus was tedious other than views as descend the hills. Lent some money to Colette to ensure that she got back to Madurai.

Back on farm, more dung shifting, and packing resultant compost into biodegradable or reusable bags. Started preparation for a visit to the village school - making board games and posters. Installation has started for the drip-feed watering system - the farm already has a raised water tank into which water is electrically pumped from a nearby well. There is no shortage of water here, as close to the mountains, although not many mosquitos as ground surface is largely dry. Not sufficiently dry to discourage frogs - one active one was hopping around the bedroom in the night, refused to be chased out, and hid under the bed. Margaret opened door and hoped that it would take the hint (and not invite its friends in instead).

Started packing in preparation for return journey. Will give away some items to make room in suitcase for various purchases (unspecified). Did visit to school on Wednesday and enjoyed being with the kids. Success in taming goats now complete - Margaret could put them both in to Crufts (or goat equivalent) this year, but would doubtless have problems getting visas to get them out of country. Several of the volunteers have had ongoing visa problems with Indian bureaucracy - Max went off to Madurai to register his, and didn't get back for nearly a week!

Week 9 - Kollam, rice boat, and homeward bound

Drip feed watering system is now in operation on farm, so safe to leave plants and head off for the last weekend trip - again to Kerala, this time to Kollam famed for its backwaters. Getting there involved another long bus journey, and again Margaret was by herself. She had to change buses in Tenkasi, but at the main bus station someone dissuaded her from getting off saying "next stop". After several "next stops" she arrived at a terminus, and descending discovered that she should have got off at the main station!

At this point she was relieved to encounter a couple of other Projects Abroad volunteers (presumably also lost). Together they found a bus back, which was very slow, but did they did eventually manage to get to right bus station and find the right bus for Kollam. Margaret ventured to the ladies loo which seemed just to be a gully behind a wall. Arriving in Kollam, they got an auto- rickshaw, which took them several miles in the wrong direction, before admitting that he didn't know where hotel was (it didn't help that it had changed its name recently). Indians don't like saying no to anybody - you have to watch for the sideways nod of the head, which indicates "I heard your question" rather than "yes" or "no". Eventually got to hotel - within sight of bus station they were at previously!

While relaxing on veranda of hotel (which had seen better days) on a swing, because there were no seats there, Margaret managed to twist herself and now has either pulled a muscle or trapped a nerve at the top of her leg, and is suffering. However, next day was relaxing trip on rice boat through backwaters, no more farm work is needed, and she can sit without pain, so not a bad time to do it.
This evening she managed to persuade hotel to provide a chair, so was sitting at 6pm overlooking the lake when I called. They are heading in to Kollam to eat, as previous meal in hotel was disappointing. She had the smallest fish on record - sort of one bony sardine - a shame because Margaret and I had our best ever fish in Kerala some years ago before the fish stocks were depleted. Hotel does seem to be rather a 'Fawtly Towers', but at 870R for two nights (about 6 a night), it's not very surprising!

On the Sunday, she opted out of a walk to the beach in the early morning, as her sciatica (or similar) was painful. However, the effect of being bounced on a hard bus seat for a couple of hours seems to have similar effects to a physiotherapy session, so she is feeling much better. To avoid having to possibly stand on crowded buses from Tenkasi, she managed to negotiate getting a car (usual Morris Oxford found as Indian taxis) from the place just before Tenkasi where other volunteers were going off by train to Madurai. Unusually for her, she sat in the back seat, which was probably fortunate, because the driver had to do an emergency stop when a boy and bike wandered out into the road without looking. She reckons that if she'd have been in the front seat she would have gone through the windscreen (no seat belt). Boy was hit, but seemed unhurt.

The rural life going on all around never ceases to amaze her. The locals had spread rice straw across the road so that the cars and lorries driving over it would thresh it. The field behind her house, which was had rice nearing maturity when she arrived has been harvested, collected, burnt, ploughed, flooded, planted, tended, and is now knee-high on the way to another harvest.

After returning to Ullar Sunday, she starts her travels back to England on Monday, arriving UK on Tuesday. Route is taxi to Madurai, plane to Chennai, plane to Mumbai, stay overnight in airport hotel, plane to Hethrow (10 hour flight), then taxi home! I've just booked her to come with me to California in a few week's time, so her travels will continue!


Margaret is safely home, and confirms that she enjoyed the trip, although there were aspects that she could improve (as always). It was certainly a rich experience and exposed her to the real India. I've put in above just a handful of her photos. 170 more are available as her Google (Picassa) web album. Thank you for your interest!

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