In Podcast 26 I spend a week in India, visiting a charity project that I support through my church here in Bristol. From Hyderabad we travelled to Kurnool with our contact Father Pratap Reddy and visited some of the villages where he is supporting the education of the poorest children and developing community projects to help the people there. You’ll hear about our visits to schools, hostels and rural villages seeing for ourselves how donations from overseas were being used and making a big difference to people’s lives.
Day 1 – Shopping and sightseeing in Hyderabad
In Hyderabad we stayed at the lovely Mercure Abids Hotel that was booked through AsiaRooms.com in a neighbourhood that has plenty of small local shops, selling clothes and jewellery. We took a tuk tuk across the river to the Charminar district which is one of the older districts of Hyderabad where we climbed up the famous Charminar monument, to get a view over the city. I soon realised that not many European tourists visit Hyderabad, when two different Indians visiting the monument asked to have their photos taken with me as if I was a rare and exotic creature that they only see very rarely.
With my friends Marilyn & Robert I walked down the road past all the shops selling jewellery and brightly coloured bangles, and we found ourselves near the Chowmahalla Palace built in the 18th century for the Nizams or rulers of Hyderabad to entertain their guests. The white palace buildings were set around two large courtyards with lawns and fountains, and we walked through some of the rooms, including the throne room with enormous sparkling chandeliers that were designed to impress. You can read more in my article about Shopping and Sightseeing in Hyderabad.
After lunch back at the hotel, we were picked up by our contact, Fr Pratap Reddy who drove us the three hours south to Kurnool. The landscape was a dry, arid scrub-land with not much to see other than a few fields and rice paddies being cultivated wherever there was a source of water for irrigation. Every so often there might be a field of chilli plants speckled with red, or cotton bushes and mango trees in flower. It seemed to be harvest time and we saw many carts heavily loaded with hay, including one that had tipped over and was blocking half of the 2 lane highway. As we got closer to Kurnool, Father Pratap pointed out the river that had flooded in 2009 and overflowing its banks after unexpectedly high rainfall and causing a disaster when water and mud flowed into the major town destroying shops and businesses.
Day 2 – Meeting sponsor children in Nandikotkur
We stayed for the next 3 days at a hotel in Kurnool and from there Father Pratap took us to see various community projects that he had started. On our first morning at the Parish House at Nandikotkur, we met some of the children whose education was being sponsored by families in the UK. I had met Fr Pratap over 15 years ago through my church when he was visiting the UK making appeals for help in his parish and as he had been back to the UK a number of times, I set up a small charity to channel the fundraising efforts. Together with my friends Marilyn and Robert who are also involved in the charity, we were there to see how the money raised had been used.
The sponsorship is normally used to pay for books, uniforms and other school expenses for the children from poorer families whose parents may find it difficult even to pay the small amount for schooling. By the time we arrived at the parish house, there were already some children there with their parents, who had travelled for 3 or 4 hours to meet us, which we really appreciated. Some had come from Father Pratap’s old parish of P. Yaleru and others who were attending school nearby came to meet us in their school lunch break, as they were in the middle of exams. I was thrilled to meet my sponsored child Neelima,who had come with her brother and father some distance to meet me. You can read my article about meeting my Indian sponsor child here.
We quickly developed an approach to meeting these groups of sponsor children, who might only speak a few words of English and of course our Telugu was pretty limited! Sitting in a circle, I would pass around an album of photos of my family, telling them who everyone was and what they were doing, to give a sense of connection from my family to their family.We also gave them some postcards of Bristol, pointing out the key landmarks of our city, such as the Clifton suspension bridge, the balloons floating over Bristol, and the ships in the harbour. We’d brought with is some small gifts such as toiletries or stationary and we also took loads of photos as each child to give to their sponsors in the UK who love to see different photos of their sponsor child growing up.
After lunch we went to have tea with the nuns who live on the school campus, as each of the Catholic schools would typically have a house with 4 or 5 nuns who work as teachers and run the school. It was fascinating to talk to them about their lives, as many are in their 20s and 30s and come from all over India, moving around every few years. Both the priests and nuns learn to speak good English which they need to communicate in different parts of India, as different languages may be spoken in each state. English medium schools, where most of the lessons are taught in English are becoming increasingly popular, because speaking English increases your job prospects and means that you can get business jobs in different parts of India.
We walked around one of the smaller, rural villages which was part of Father Paratap’s parish. One of the main things they wanted to discuss with him was how they could get more bore wells, as there is little standing water and so the wells are required in order to irrigate the crops. The rains only come for one month of the year, allowing crops to be grown for a short season, but if well water is available the growing season is extended and the farmers can increase their income. The problem is that these deep tube wells are very expensive to drill, each one costing over £1000 and even then the supply of water is limited to how much can be pumped up when the power supply is available, in the morning and evening.
That evening we attended a presentation with the children from the school boarding hostels – 75 girls and 40 boys. They stay in the hostels beside the school in term-time, with their parents visiting them at weekends, since their villages are too far for them to travel to school daily. We were treated to speeches of welcome and the children performed dance routines for us, the boys in high energy Bollywood style, the girls with some graceful traditional dances. At the the end of each dance they pulled us up out of our seats in order to make us dance with them, causing much laughter at our efforts to copy them.
Day 3 – A return visit to the village of P.Yaleru
Eight years earlier we had visited Father Pratap in his parish of P. Yaleru and now it was time to make a return visit. We drove the three hours from Kurnool to Anantapur on an excellent two lane highway with only the occasional heart-stopping moment when we met an ox cart driving towards us in the wrong direction in one of those “Only in India” moments. We stopped at the town of Anantapur to buy sweets for the children and then continued to Holy Spirit school at Atmakur, where we were expected for lunch with the nuns. Father Pratap told us how this English Medium school had been started some years ago with only 100 children and proved so popular that it had now expanded to teach 700 pupils.
We had innocently turned up thinking it was to be a passing visit, but after lunch we were invited to a whole school assembly, which featured a major song and dance presentation. We sat on the stage at the front while the children came up to perform a series of dance routines, while teachers held their mobile phones to the microphone to amplify the Indian pop music. Next came speeches in which we were thanked for giving up our valuable time to visit the school and I was then handed the microphone to ad lib a similar speech in which I congratulated the children on their wonderful dancing. We toured all the classrooms to distribute the sweets that we had brought, although of course we had completely underestimated the number of children, having only enough sweets for half the school and had to leave a donation so the rest of the school could have their sweets later!
Driving on to the village of P. Yaleru we noticed that the rutted dirt track that we had travelled along previously had been replaced by a new road. The dome of the new church that had been completed just before our last visit rose above the treeline as we approached, with a tiered design which looked a bit like a wedding cake. The current parish priest, Father Joseph, welcomed us and showed us some of the new projects such as a water pumping and filtration station to give clean water drinking water for the village. The land around the new church had been a building site on our last visit, but now a wall had been built and gardens planted with coconut palms which generated income for the parish.
Behind the church was a water tower which ensured a continuous water supply, as the power to pump the water from the bore well is only available at certain times during the day. As we walked around the village, we could see how many of the old style mud and stone houses with thatched roofs had been replaced by new style concrete houses which although small are cleaner and more modern. A typical family house might have one room with high shelves around the walls to store cooking pots and other possessions, and sometimes a second smaller room which was used as a kitchen and store-room. Finally we walked around the plantation of 1200 mango trees which was now 5 years old and providing some income to support the parish and the education of the children. The bore well had been drilled to provide drip irrigation for the trees and Father Pratap told us how he had to drill seven times for the well before they finally struck water which was a great relief, as many people thought he was crazy to keep trying. Little by little all these projects had brought improvements to the families of P.Yaleru.
Day 4 – Visiting the stone polishing factory
On the next day, Father Pratap took us to visit a stone polishing factory which he had started in a previous parish. As we drove closer, the landscape became more rocky and we could see the waste stone from the quarries littering the hillside. In the town we drove past many businesses with the stone stacked up at the front, ready to use as flooring for houses. We pulled up at the factory and were met by a deputation who greeted us with garlands and led us into the factory. A group was drumming and singing and we sat down to hear a speech by one of the community leaders, which was translated for us, in which he told us how the project had changed their lives. We learned that it had been a major undertaking to raise a loan for the land, get the necessary permissions and deal with all the beauracracy, but that now their incomes have been much improved because of this project.
The factory is a co-operative for the benefit of a number of families and at the start there was just one building and a few polishing machines, but over the years this has multiplied. There are individual owners for each stone polishing or cutting machine, and the owner then employs others to operate the machines, sharing the profits 60% to the machine owner and 40% to the workers. It was heavy, physical work with the stone being trimmed by a circular blade and then polished with a rotating metal plate which the operator moved around with their body. I was a bit worried to see the operators with very little protective equipment and hoped that they would not be so distracted by our taking their photos that a finger would be sliced off or a toe crushed underfoot.
Returning to the parish house, I had asked Father Pratap if he could arrange for me to stay with a local family on my last night. However, I was feeling a bit apprehensive after visiting villages where whole families would live in a single room house, with little in the way of bathroom facilities, and wondered what my night would be like. However, Father Pratap had obviously anticipated this and placed me with a family who were better off than many of his parishioners and offered me my own room with an adjoining bathroom, although I later realised they had probably given me their own bedroom. I spent the evening chatting to them and their grandson, who spoke some English, and looking at family photos of their two daughters, one of whom was a teacher in Kurnool, the other who was in the USA with her husband.
My interview with Father Pratap Reddy
You’ll hear my interview with Father Pratap Reddy who told me more about the lives of the families that he supports in his parish. He has nine village outstations within 15 km of the parish house, with many families who work as agricultural labourers or in stone quarries, earning less than £1 a day. On this kind of income they have barely enough to eat, and for any other expenses they might have to take a loan and commit themselves to working for the lender until the loan is paid off. The goverment schools in the villages are “not up to the mark”, so the Catholic church runs schools and also boarding hostels where the children stay. The parents can’t afford to send their children to school by bus and by staying in the hostels the parish covers their living expenses which prevents the children going out to work with the parents rather than being in school.
Reflections on our visit
On my return to Hyderabad I reflected on the three intense days we’d had; we met children, families, we were danced to, drummed to, sung to, it was an amazing experience. If you are travelling in a place like India and come across any projects that need your support, I urge you to get involved and make a personal connection. You may start out by thinking that you are the one doing the giving, but by the end you will feel that you have received an incredible amount from the experience and that was certainly my feeling during my visit to India.
More stories from my trip to India
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Hyderabad in one of those cities in India that most westerners only visit on business and tourists never bother with, which made me like it even more. I’ve never been to the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort in Jaipur, but as impressive or historical as I imagine these sites to be, I can do without the crowds, the beggars and the general hassle that goes with such tourist hot-spots. In Hyderabad you can escape most of that, and in fact there were times when local Indians asked to have their photo taken with me and I wondered whether I was a tourist attraction for them, since a western face is rather unexpected in their city.
Hyderabad is something of a technology and IT hotspot, but rather than stay in the HITEC City business district, my friends and I opted to stay in Abids, a local commercial and shopping neighbourhood, at the Mercure Abids Hotel which was booked through AsiaRooms.com. We only had a day in Hyderabad before heading south to Kurnool on charity business, so were pleased to find that we could walk out of the hotel and experience the bustle of everyday Indian life but were also close to the historic sights in Charminar.
The Mercure Abids Hotel
The hotel is modern, flat fronted building and a welcome haven from the busy street, with a large, open marble-floored lobby where rose petals float in a bowl at the entrance. Past the reception desk on your left is a seating area with over-sized chairs and a water feature of small fountains, the whole topped by the most enormous black and gold chandelier hung with dangling crystals. The rooms are set on various floors overlooking this open atrium, with windows onto the quieter, though not especially attractive side roads at each side of the hotel. The hotel is located on a road that leads up to the main shopping street of Abids which means that the bustle and shopping is a short walk away but that the noise and constant toot-toot of traffic is kept at bay, so we had a peaceful night’s sleep.
I hope you enjoy the video below of the Mercure Abids Hotel, Hyderabad
What about my room?
With my friends Marilyn and Robert, I stayed two nights at the hotel, one at the beginning and one at the end of the week I spent in Andhra Pradesh. Both the rooms I stayed in on the first and second floor had the same style of decor, were very spacious by European standards and comfortably furnished. I liked the decor which was stylish and modern, with cream walls, a cherry-wood floor and a colour scheme of coffee and sea green. There was dark wood furniture, a feature wall behind the bed with a swirling modern patterned wallpaper, and a padded, fabric covered bedhead with textured beige furnishings. The sea green colour scheme continued through to the silky cushions on the bed and brushed cotton armchair and in the beige and green, leaf patterned curtains. The lighting was well designed with plenty of standing lamps, desk lighting and reading lamps on either side of the bed with cream shades.
Other features included a desk area with leather desk accessories and information about things to see in the city , a fridge, kettle and flat screen TV. Another convenient feature was the UK plug socket, which since my travel adapter was not working, proved very useful for charging my laptop and camera batteries. In the corridor through to the bathroom was a full size wardrobe with a safe which I used to store my valuables and a place to put my suitcases. My only quibble was that the wifi in the hotel was very expensive at 499 Rupees (£6) for 1 day and 199 Rupees (£2.50) for 1 hr and each device was charged separately, so if I wanted to connect with my mobile and my laptop I had to pay twice. If you are a heavy internet user I’d suggest you check these charges in advance before deciding which hotel to book, as although there are often internet shops nearby, you don’t always have time to go in search of them.
Freshen up in the bathroom
It was great after a long journey to freshen up in my marble bathroom, with large sink and shower and plenty of Mercure toiletries. The hair dryer in the bathroom was especially welcome as I was feeling rather unkempt after the long flight via Dubai, and even more so when I returned after 3 days in a local hotel in Kurnool where such appliances apparently did not exist and I was told “Sorry Madame, you do not have that facility”.
Vegetarian food at the Abids Bistro
Before I visited Hyderabad I didn’t realise that a large proportion of the population in Southern India are vegetarian and that many vegetarians in this part of the world do not like to even eat in a restaurant that serves meat. Many larger hotels have different restaurants with vegetarian and non-vegetarian menus and at the Mercure Abids the menu was wholly vegetarian, with not even an egg served at breakfast.
The Abids Bistro on the ground floor of the hotel was like a rather smart cafe with polished wood tables and curvy chairs and we ate there on both evenings from the vegetarian buffet. There was also an a la carte menu, but the choice in the buffet was so fantastic and delicious that I’m not sure why you would bother with anything else. There were plenty of salads which we cautiously avoided, sticking to the no tap-water, no salads, no meat, no ice cream rule, in the hope of avoiding tummy upsets. However there were plenty of variety in the hot (as in temperature) curry and rice dishes and some other Asian dishes as well as great deserts. I thoroughly recommend the vegetarian food and friendly staff at the Mercure Abids Bistro, and vegetarians who struggle in Europe to find anything more exciting than an omelette will be in heaven here, so long as you like spicy Indian food. You should, however be aware that the hotel does not serve alcohol, so you may need to find somewhere else to serve you that cold beer.
Shop till you drop in Abids
We found that the Abids neighbourhood was perfect if you like shopping, with many local small shops selling everything under the Indian sun. The rule in India is that different kinds of goods are normally concentrated in one street or neighbourhood so you can find yourself passing shops selling nothing but electronic goods one minute and colourful saris and clothing in the next street. Along the main Abids street it seemed to be mainly clothing and jewellery, and every so often there were small shopping malls with a collection of different shops, often with one larger store selling clothes and homeware.
I was on the look-out for some loose, cool Kurta tops to wear during my stay in India and we found a likely store with shelves stacked with many different coloured tops where I had a lovely time trying them all on before I decided which ones to buy. We got chatting to the owner’s son who it turned out had studied in the UK and was now trying to get a job there. We were also on a mission to buy an Indian electrical adapters – as the universal adapter that I had brought from the UK was broken. Our new friend in the clothes shop sent his staff out to scout in nearby shops, but as it was Sunday, many of the hardware shops were closed and nothing could be found. Many of the wonderful jewellery shops in this neighbourhood were also closed but in the one or two that were open, we ogled at all the ornate gold jewellery and strings of pearls combined with precious stones. Hyderabad is known as “the city of pearls”, not because of it being anywhere near the sea but because the Nizams who ruled the city amassed great wealth and loved to show it off in precious jewellery and pearls. We were ushered into one shop where I was tempted to try on, but managed to resist buying, a string of pearls the size of marbles.
Visiting the Charminar Monument
The next morning, we took a tuk tuk to the Charminar district – a 10-15 min drive to the other side of the river. Charminar is the heart of the old city and has many bazaars and shops, so it’s where everyone will recommend you to visit if you are sightseeing in Hyderabad. The Charminar Monument is the icon of the city and looks like an Indian Arc de Triomph, a square monument topped with decorative carvings and four minarets, with the traffic swirling around it where four roads intersect. The monument was built by Muhammed Quli Qutab Shah in the 16th century and you pay 100 Rupees (£1) to enter the enclosure and walk underneath as well as climb up the narrow enclosed stone steps (not for the claustrophobic) to get a view from the top. I looked down over the busy road and the market stall sellers below with the tuk tuks weaving their way in between bicycles, motorbikes, cars and even the odd ox cart. When I got back down some other Indian tourists at the monument stopped me and wanted to have their photos taken with me, including 2 girls who were covered head to toe in black bhurkhas!
At the Chowmahalla Palace
Walking from the monument down the Laad bazaar, a street that sold nothing but brightly coloured bangles, we found ourself at the Chowmahalla palace which we decided to have a look around. Built in the 18th century, this was where the Nizams of Hyderabad entertained their visitors and guests, in a series of white palace buildings with archways and minarets, set around large courtyards with fountains and gardens. We went inside some of the palace buildings including the grand Durbar hall where I was mesmerised by the huge number of enormous and dazzling chandeliers that were designed to impress and certainly had the desired effect on me.
There were several other exhibition rooms with information about the Nizams of Hyderabad, old photos of the ruling family from the 19th and 20th century and furniture from the palace showing beautiful craftsmanship. At one point I found myself in a room full of mannequins, showing the gorgeous and colourful clothing worn by the women in days gone by which is just the sort of thing I love, but at that point I had lost my friends Marilyn and Robert, so I couldn’t stop and continued my search for them. Eventually we found each other and took a tuk tuk back to the hotel, as we had plans to travel up to Kurnool that afternoon. For more information about the palace check the Chowmahalla Palace website.
After several days in Kurnool, a few hours drive south of Hyderabad, we returned to stay a further night at Mercure Abids Hotel and it was a relief to get back to a haven of comfort and peace after a hectic few days, visiting villages and schools. I highly recommend the Mercure Abids which we booked through AsiaRooms.com as a great base to explore Hyderabad, especially if you are there for leisure and enjoy shopping and sightseeing.
Mercure Hyderabad Abids Hotel, 5-9-208 Chirag Ali Lane, Abids, 500001, Hyderabad, India
This hotel and other hotels in Hyderabad can be booked through AsiaRooms.com, who list thousands of hotels in Asia and beyond.
My room was kindly hosted by AsiaRooms.com but the cost per night around the time we visited was around £40-55 including breakfast, depending on room type. The Wifi charge was 499 Rupees (£6) per day per device and the vegetarian buffet dinner was around 450 Rupees + taxes (£6).
Read more about our visit to Andhra Pradesh, India
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I saw Neelima standing shyly at the back door of the priest’s house in the small Indian town of Nandikotkur where we had come to spend the day. I checked the photos that I had brought with me from England, of her standing stiffly with her little brother and parents, so that I could be sure it was really her. It seemed amazing that I had come all the way to India and was finally going to meet my sponsor child.
It all started some years ago when I began sponsoring an Indian child, after meeting Father Pratap Reddy at my church here in Bristol. At the time we felt so lucky to have three healthy children and to give thanks for our blessings we decided to sponsor a boy of about the same age as our oldest son William. The money went towards the education of our sponsor child, to pay for school books, uniforms and other school expenses and periodically we received a photo of our boy Thirumula Sagar. In the earliest photos he was just a little boy, but in the latest one that I still have one of him on my mantelpiece, he is now a grown to be a tall young man just like our boy William. Eight years ago I travelled to India to see Father Pratap, who I had come to know over the years and met Thirumula and his parents who had travelled some hours by bus to meet me – you can read about our meeting here.
Now the years had passed and Thirumula had gone to college and got a job in the big city, he and his parents had moved away and Father Pratap had lost touch with them. It was time for the sponsorship to pass on to another child who I could help through their education and this time I asked to sponsor a girl. Why sponsor a girl?
I knew that in India, as all over the world, families traditionally invest more in ensuring a positive future for boys than for girls. Boys get the education and the good jobs and so they are able to look after their wives and families. If you are a mother in India, it’s your son who will be taking care of you in your old age, so it makes perfect sense to ensure your son will be able to support you. But here’s the problem….when a girl gets married in India, her family traditionally have to provide her with a dowry, of gold jewellery, household goods and other gifts which will be laid out at the wedding for everyone to see. Even the poorest families feel that they must give their girl a good start and not shame themselves by giving too little, so they may borrow money they can ill afford and effectively become slaves to repay the loan over the rest of their lives.
A girl who is well educated will not be married off too early, just because her family can’t afford to support her, and will be able to make a better arranged marriage, to a more educated man. And because she has earning potential in her own right, an educated girl’s dowry need not be so large that it bankrupts her family. An educated women will be able to get a job to support her family and have a bigger say in her own future.
Neelima had travelled 200 km with her brother and father, starting early that morning just to come and meet us. As she waited outside the house , I was only able to say a brief hello, as we were about to meet a larger group of children who were in between exams in the school. Then it was time to meet Neelima and we were able to sit together for a while to exchange smiles and a bit of conversation which was translated by Father Pratap.
I had brought a small photo album with pictures of my family to show to them which was a great success. After meeting so many children, I’d become used to repeating like a parrot; “this is my husband, this is my oldest son who is at college, this is my daughter who will be going to college next year, this is my son who is taking exams.” Even if it was a bit predictable, it was a good way to make a connection and everyone can relate to your family, especially in India. My next trick was a pile of colourful postcards with picturesque shots of Bristol where I live, which we handed out to all the sponsor children. We got used to explaining over and over; ”this is the famous bridge in Bristol, here is the harbour, these are the old sailing ships”, wondering what on earth they could make of my home town that was so different to theirs. Again I showed Neelima and her brother the photos and postcards and gave them some small gifts which elicited huge smiles and we took lots of photos together.
Then we shook hands and went off to lunch while Neelima and her family stayed around the campus, as they had relatives there and would be staying the night before travelling back to their village the next day. Later in the afternoon, after we had toured one of the local villages in Father Pratap’s parish, the family came back to meet us again. This time they offered me a gift of their own, a red beaded Shalwar Kameez, for me to bring back for my daughter, Sophie-Anne who they had seen in the photos. I accepted graciously, realising that they had gone into the nearby town after our meeting, especially to buy a gift from their daughter to my daughter.
What I have realised from sponsoring a child in India is that the gift is small by our standards of Western affluence, but it is far exceeded by the satisfaction of giving someone a helping hand towards a better future, especially if you can make a personal connection with that person as I have been lucky enough to do. I hope that I can see Neelima grow up into a strong and confident young woman, just as I have seen my own daughter, Sophie-Anne grow up over the years, knowing that they both have a bright future to look forward to.
If you’d like to support the education of other children like Neelima, then please do make a donation, however small through the special charity PayPal account that I have set up – the Donate Button is below or you can follow this link or donate directly via PayPal to email@example.com Thankyou.
The money that is donated to support this project in India is channelled through the charity that I set up for this purpose and of which I am a trustee. It is Families Initiative For India (F.I.F.I) which is a UK Registered Charity – Charity No 1093565
Read about my last trip to India
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