December 28, 2015 by Heather Cowper
Filed under United Kingdom, Europe, World, Leisure, featured, Art and design, Brittany, Copenhagen, Costa Brava, Cruise, Denmark, Devon and Cornwall, Eating and drinking, France, Germany, Greece, Greece & Turkey Cruise, India, Italy, Luxembourg, Museums, Sightseeing, Spain, Venice, Walking, Zakynthos
We’re in that lull between the feasting and celebration of Christmas and the fresh starts and new plans of New Year. It’s the quiet time when we can reflect and review the year that’s gone, the time to reminisce and consider what the year brought us: the adventures and challenges, the excitement of visiting new places, the holiday times we enjoyed with loved ones. Here’s a look back to the travels I enjoyed in 2015.
January – A cottage stay and fossil hunting in Devon and Dorset
We started the year with a weekend at Red Doors Farm in Devon through Premier Cottages, a collection of 500 year old thatched cottages, set around a cobbled farmyard. My teenage son and friends made good use of the indoor swimming pool and proved that you’re never too old to feed the goats and chickens. We climbed up to the hill fort near the farm and enjoyed a bracing walk along the beach at Lyme Regis where we spotted fossils on the ammonite pavement that was revealed at low tide.
February – A charity visit to India
In February I flew with Jet Airways to India for a week that was off the tourist map, although I spent a little time exploring Bangalore at the beginning and end of the trip. My purpose was to visit a local charity that I support in Andhra Pradesh and see some of the projects that we had funded. Together with one of the charity trustees I was treated to Bollywood style dances in all the local schools, had endless cups of teas with the nuns who ran them, cut the ribbon on a new water purification plant and presented a womens’ tailoring class with their new sewing machines. It was a week that made me realise more than ever that when you give to those in need, you come away much richer from the experience.
March – A weekend by the sea in St Mawes, Cornwall
We spent a weekend with friends at the magical Dreamcatchers house from St Mawes Retreats with a view over the Fal estuary in Cornwall. From the bedrooms we could see the tankers passing St Anthony’s lighthouse and the St Mawes ferry heading for Falmouth. We’d stayed at another St Mawes Retreats house before (read my review of Stargazers here) so we knew that we could expect gorgeous Designers Guild fabrics and luxurious furnishings, with sea views to die for. This time we wandered around the harbour and took the St Mawes ferry across the estuary for a Cornish pasty and ale pub lunch in the quaint streets of Falmouth.
April – Venice with the family
I was lucky enought to win an apartment stay with Go with Oh through the Passports with Purpose fundraiser and decided to use it for a few days in Venice with my family. Although we visited a few tourist highlights like the Doge’s Palace, we found that the neighbourhoods away from St Mark’s square were much more enjoyable to wander around. We loved the modern art at the Peggy Guggenheim and saw Venice from the water on our boat tour with Walks of Italy when we climbed up the campenile of San Georgio Maggiore for views across the lagoon to San Marco. The only disappointment was the food, but hopefully you’ll do better than me with my tips on How to not eat badly in Venice.
April – A weekend in Wiltshire and a sunrise visit to Stonehenge
I stayed at Sarum College inside the close of Salisbury Cathedral for the Social Travel Britain conference and part of the weekend included a walking tour of the cathedral, a private viewing of Magna Carta and a visit to Edward Heath’s old residence of Arundells. The highlight, though, was a sunrise visit to Stonehenge during which we were allowed to walk within the stone circle. This access is only allowed on special guided tours and most tourists can’t get up close to the stones, so it made the experience much more magical.
May – Lloret de Mar in Costa Brava, Spain
Lloret de Mar is one of those coastal resorts on the Costa Brava coast of Spain that was built up in the 1960s as one of the first places to welcome mass tourism from the UK. I was there as a speaker at the TBEX conference but took some time out to explore the town and discover its history. While the Lloret de Mar of recent years has gained a reputation for 20-somethings looking for nightlife and older couples seeking a retirement in the sun, I enjoyed walking around the older squares and along the rocky coast path on the edge of town.
In the Museu del Mar, I discovered the connections to Cuba where many locals sailed to make their fortunes, returning to build the grand mansions on the seafront. I tasted the Daiquiri cocktails, another import from Cuba and now the favoured drink of Lloret de Mar, and I loved the restful Santa Clothilde gardens, planted in Italian Renaissance style, overlooking the sea.
Read More: Lloret de Mar – sun, sea and so much more…
June – A weekend in Copenhagen with my daughter
I’ve visited Copenhagen many times and in June I returned with my daughter for the opening of the Absalon Hotel which had been newly renovated in Designers Guild furnishings. I was able to interview Tricia Guild, Creative Director of Designers Guild who was there to open the hotel, as well as trying out new restaurants and cocktails with my daughter. We also spent a couple of nights up the coast at the gorgeous spa hotel, Kurhotel Skodsborg where we wafted around the pools and jumped off the jetty to cool off after our sauna.
June – Alpine Sports Week in Wilder Kaiser, Austria
I love being in the mountains in summer so I jumped at the chance when I was invited to try out some of the outdoor activities on offer during Alpine Sports Week in the Wilder Kaiser region of Austria. During this week different mountain sports are on offer, from high rope walking to canyoning, mountain-biking to Via Ferrata and all for the knockdown price of €99 for 5 days of activities with expert guides. It was the perfect opportunity to try something different, since I’m a keen hiker but was able to test myself with the mountain-biking and high wire climbing in the Hornpark tree forest.
July – A week with the family in Zakynthos, Greece
In July we made our annual visit to Zakynthos in Greece to visit my sister who runs two hotels there with her husband. We spent the week visiting different beaches, swimming, eating, sunbathing and catching up on family news. This summer my niece had returned to the island after training with a leading hotel group and had decided to get involved in the family business, opening a new Mediterranean restaurant in an idyllic setting by the sea. Anadalis, as it is called, is named after the old estate on which the hotel is built which once belonged to an aristocratic family with a house just a little way up the shore, but you’ll have to read to article to find out why the locals thought the old ruined mansion was haunted. If you visit Zakynthos I highly recommend that you book a table for dinner as the sun goes down over the bay.
August – Our Azamara Greek Island Cruise
Later in August we were back to the Greek islands again for a cruise with Azamara Club Cruises which took us from Athens to Santorini, Mykonos, Patmos, Kusadasi and finally to Istanbul where we ended our cruise. We absolutely loved the luxurious small ship cruise experience with Azamara Club Cruises where the spotlight is firmly on the destinations you visit, creating unique experiences like our magical evening concert among the ancient ruins of Ephesus as the sun went down.
September – A walking holiday in Austria with Headwater Holidays
September saw me back in Austria for a few days walking with Headwater Holidays who specialise in relaxing walking and cycling holidays. I was accompanied by my friend Julia for our annual walking trip which has become our tradition since we walked the Tour de Mont Blanc together. On the first day on the high slopes of the Gaistal valley I fell down a slope and hurt my ankle but using the Headwater walking guides we chose the less strenuous walks on subsequent days and enjoyed the rest of the holiday. We watched a rifleman’s parade in Seefeld and walked along a Mental Power trail, walked through the wild Leutasch Gorge and round the lakes above the picturesque town of Mittenwald with its painted houses. Each day brought different mountain scenery and things to see, confirming my love of the mountains in summer.
September – A gourmet visit to Luxembourg
In September we spent a few days in Luxembourg, a city and tiny country that’s full of surprises. While Luxembourg is known as a centre for international business, we found a charming and easily walkable city with great food, museums and a fascinating history, making it an ideal weekend break location. We also spent some time touring the Moselle wine region where the Moselle river forms the border with Germany, with many wineries to taste the delicious white wines the sparkling Cremant which was my favourite.
November – The Christmas Markets of Heidelberg, Germany
At the end of November we spent a few day in Heidelberg, Germany to see the Christmas Markets and generally get into the festive spirit. We’d visited Heidelberg previously on a day trip from our Rhine River Cruise and were pleased that we could have more time to explore this picturesque and romantic town at our leisure. We took the river boat down to the Neurberg Abbey Christmas Market, climbed up to the castle, learned the history of the ancient university and student fraternities and ate plenty of hearty German food, delicious cakes and chocolates as well as drinking quite a few mugs of hot Glühwein.
Read More: A Food Lover’s Guide to Heidelberg, Germany
December – A weekend in Le Havre, France
My final trip of this year was a hop over the channel to le Havre with Brittany Ferries to discover what this channel port would offer for a weekend break. Most Brits drive through Le Havre on their way to their holidays in France but I discovered that there are many fascinating things to see here that make it worth stopping to visit the city and surrounding area. The city was reconstructed after heavy bombing in WW2 and the architecture of the new town (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) represents the modern designs of the 1950s. We visited a 1950s show flat which would have been allocated to those who lost their own houses in the bombing, as well as a gorgeous 18th century ship owner’s mansion. Another highlight was the MUMA modern art museum, a light and airy glass building with the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris, since painters such as Monet loved this part of the Normandy coast. I’ll be writing about my weekend in Le Havre very soon so stay tuned.
Reviewing the year was a fun way to remind myself of all the fun I had on my travels in 2015. There’s much more to come in 2016 and I wish you Happy Travels for the year to come.
Please note that many of the trips were hosted by the companies mentioned and you can find more details in the articles from each trip.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
If you’re visiting Bangalore (now known as Bengaluru), the chances are you’re just passing through on business or flying into the city before moving on. This was exactly my purpose when I visited Bangalore in January on my way to visit a charity project that I support – you can read about it here. Despite the snatched half day of sightseeing and shopping at the beginning and end of my trip, I found quite a few places to visit in Bangalore if you only have one day to spend there.
Hotels in Bangalore – Escape Hotel & Spa
For the first and last night of my stay in India I searched for a boutique style hotel that was moderately priced (it feels wrong to pay European prices in India), and everything pointed to Escape Hotel & Spa in the Indira Nagar district. Without realising it I managed to choose one of the most trendy neighbourhoods in Bengaluru with restaurants and bars that wouldn’t be out of place in any major European city. This is a popular area for expats to live and where the young and affluent of Bengalore come to play after a hard day at the call centre or office.
My room on the 3rd floor of Escape Hotel was very spacious with stark modern decor of black, white and grey with a couple of red painted chairs for a spot of colour. Full marks for the oh-so-British set-up of a kettle to make your morning cuppa and a safe that would actually fit my laptop. My only complaint was the angular wooden base of the bed, which seems to be a feature of these designer hotels, but only served as a place to bang my shins.
Since garden space is at a premium in the city, the roof terrace of the hotel was a welcome feature, with indoor and outdoor seating for drinks, and the Bricklane Grill restaurant overlooking the narrow rooftop swimming pool. The restaurant style is continental European, vaguely French with distressed painted white-wood furniture and pretty daisies on the table. The food was a mixture of European and Anglo-Indian and was well-cooked and pleasant although nothing extraordinary.
The relaxed atmosphere was only slightly marred by the thumping club music from the DJ that they have every Friday and Saturday evening until late. I’d certainly recommend Escape Hotel as a great place to stay in Bangalore if you’re looking for designer style at a resonable price. After a week in somewhat basic accommodation, I was thrilled to get back to it for a second night at the end of our time in India. For more ideas for hotels in Bangalore visit my hotel booking page where you can check for best prices and availability.
A night stroll around Indira Nagar
After dinner we took a stroll down some of the side streets around the hotel with interesting kiosk shops selling streetf ood. At one we watched rice flour dosas being made and sold wrapped in newspaper with dipping sauces in small plastic bags. Another kiosk sold Chinese style dumplings with a chilli dipping sauce, so we determined to go back the next day for lunch.
Just one block back from the main road, the atmosphere became much more local and residential with people chatting on the balconies or hanging around by the roadside. Although we didn’t see any other western tourists, no-one looked at us curiously, since Bangalore is such a cosmopolitan city. The lack of tourists had another advantage in that there was not much hastle, hussle and begging in the areas we visited.
Some cool places to eat in Bangalore
Although a little research brought up plenty of trendy restaurants in Bangalore we decided to stay close to the hotel and had lunch at the Black Rabbit on the ground floor of the Escape Hotel. This was a younger version of the Bricklane Grill with great burgers, small plates and cocktails and a DJ installed in the evening. I enjoyed my papaya noodle salad and fresh pressed mango juice and we sat in the outdoor area which was enclosed from the street.
In the evening we tried a pan-Asian restaurant called The Fatty Bao which was close to the hotel and on the floors above Monkey Bar. Initially we were shown to the 4th floor which was fully enclosed and air conditioned but we wanted to feel the warmth of the night air so asked to be seated on the 5th floor terrace which is partly open, so you can eat almost al fresco.
At the Fatty Bao they serve small plates of Asian fusion food amidst greenery, fairy lights and slightly kitch surroundings. My plate of pork belly pieces was meltingly slow-cooked but crispy on top and the mango and papaya salad was like a coleslaw with fruity dressing. Our deserts like the ginger and fig cake with a dot of garnish were OK but didn’t quite match up in deliciousness. We really enjoyed the ambiance and as usual the drinks bumped up the otherwise moderate bill to around 3500 rs (around £35) for two.
Shopping around Indira Nagar
We had planned to spend the first morning looking around the city but got sidetracked with shopping in the neighbourhood of Indira Nagar around the hotel. Close by was the Soma shop (100 Feet Rd) which sold hand printed textiles and I went a bit mad on buying sarongs, tablecloths and napkins for all my family. By the time I’d finished, a year’s worth of birthday presents was taken care of.
We moved on to the FabIndia store (522 CMH Rd) which also sold many different Indian handicrafts – definitely the place to buy clothes and household goods. By the time got back to the hotel our morning was gone, so we had to save the sightseeing for the end of our trip.
Tipu Sultan Palace in Bangalore
Because we’d spent most of our first morning shopping we were determined to get back to the sightseeing in Bangalore. The Tipu Sultan palace is small but interesting enough and from our hotel we took a tuk tuk which cost around 130 rupees (£1.30). While on the topic of tuk tuks it’s best to check with your hotel roughly how much a journey is likely to cost. There is a meter, but the driver will inevitably ignore you when you ask him to put it on, so it’s a good idea to check the going rate in advance. The Indians are outraged at being cheated a rupee more than they have to, but of course we soft Europeans would rather not have the haggle over a few rupees that might make quite a difference to the driver’s day.
Once we arrived at the Tipu Sultan palace we paid 100 rupees (£1) to get in and little extra for a camera licence. There were a few information signs but we decided to use the guide who approached us inside (it’s a pay what you think it’s worth system). By the end of his very detailed tour, we knew practically every fact and every date in the history of the place.
Upstairs we wandered through the faded grandeur of rooms painted in Mughal patterns and had our photos taken on the two different balconies. One faced the gardens from which the sultan hear pleas from his advisors, and on the other side he would conduct private business. A few of the ground floor rooms are open and have been made into a museum with information in English about Tipu Sultan. It was only at the end when I saw the small model of the famous mechanical tiger eating a soldier, that I made the connection with the life-size one in the V and A in London which growls and groans in turn.
Visiting the City Market in Bengaluru
We had been told that the City market was right opposite the Tipu Sultan Palace but ‘right opposite’ was clearly a relative term in India. We set off in what we hoped was the right direction and as clueless British tourists were immediately approached by a tuk tuk driver who offered to take us around and act as a guide. Although we really didn’t want any more guiding, in the end the driver’s persistence wore us down and we accepted. In this case it was a good thing since he took us directly to the market and walked us right through the main areas that we might not have found.
The market was big and bustling with cows wandering around grazing on rubbish and vegetable stalls on the outside. In the inner area was the flower market where rose heads were piled high in baskets of bright red, orange and yellow. The flower industry here is not about decorating your home but for garlands which are used on all special occasions to greet honoured guests.
During our week in India we’d got quite used to being garlanded at every place we visited. In the market men sat crossed legged threading the roses and marigolds to make thick ropes of flowers, then winding them with silver thread for a bit of extra glitter.
The market was a photographer’s dream and everyone was quite good humoured although we heard that the market gets very busy and crowded especially at weekends. If you are a lady with long hair I recommend buying a jasmine string for your hair so you can walk around in a cloud of delicious floral perfume. This will help to overcome the less appealing exterior of the market where cows were rooting around in the rubbish and men urinating on the piles of rotting vegetable.
The Botanic Garden in Bengaluru
Last stop was the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens which was around 20 minutes from the market by tuk tuk costing 10 rs (10p) to enter and 50 rs (50p) per camera licence. The large gardens are a good place to escape the noise and traffic of the city, although this being India everything was very dusty. We walked up the earth paths lined with different trees and botanical specimens to reach a floral clock which was ornamented by figures of the seven dwarfs and seemed to have a Snow White theme. By the clock was a man with a whistle who was not afraid to aim a short blast at anyone committing some misdemeanor, although what these might be we couldn’t tell.
The gardens seemed a popular place for young couples to walk under the trees and groups of friends to sit and have a picnic. We were disappointed to find that many of the water features were empty of water which made them rather unattractive and the rose garden although pretty was fully enclosed. We had to peer at the roses from a distance, although I suspect that otherwise all the flowers might be picked for a home-made garland or flower ornament.
We skirted around the edge of the park and found the Victorian glasshouse which was a bit like those at Kew Gardens. The design was more of an open sided canopy and the glasshouse appeared to be more ornamental than anything else. Returning to the main entrance, since the park was now closing, we found our tuk tuk driver and returned to the hotel in nose to tail traffic and clouds of traffic fumes.
In this busy, vibrant city there are plenty of things to do in Bangalore for a day or two, if you’re there on business or passing through. It’s more of a place to hang out than to tick off the tourist sites, although there are places worth seeing while you’re there. If I went back I would try and connect with some of the locals to see beyond the traffic fumes and dust since there’s clearly a thriving entrepreneurial spirit going on here with all the trendy bars and restaurants and people with money to support them.
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Thanks to Jet Airways for providing Heather’s flight to Bangalore/ Bengaluru. Jet Airways is the second largest airline in India, operating over 300 flights daily to 73 destinations worldwide and fly to Bengaluru via Mumbai and Dehli twice daily from London Heathrow. For more information: Jet Airways website | Twitter @jetairways | Facebook | Pinterest | YouTube | Flickr |
Need Airport Parking?
Heather used the Meet and Greet Parking Service booked through APH Parking and Hotels. APH is a multi-award winning company for airport parking & airport hotels, offering airport parking at a range of airports across the UK. APH also offer airport travel extras such as Meet and Greet parking, airport lounge booking and airport hotel stays so you can start enjoying a stress-free holiday before you even take off. Thanks to APH who provided Heather’s airport parking on a complimentary basis. For more information: APH website | APH Blog | Twitter @APHParking | Facebook | Google+ | YouTube |
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
I’ve been to India three times now but not once have I had my photo taken in front of the Taj Mahal. I haven’t visited the pink city of Jaipur or floated on the backwaters of Kerala. It isn’t that I wouldn’t love to do any of these things, just that my trips to India have been for a different purpose.
In February I was in India to visit and support a small charity I founded through my church, to see how the money we sent had been spent to help the lives of the poor in the central state of Andhra Pradesh, a part of India where tourists rarely go. Although we met many people who have very little, who live off a daily wage of £1 a day, this was a visit filled with joy and I’d like to share with you some of the stories from my visit.
1. A feast day dinner at the Don Bosco house
Barely had we arrived in the small town of Ananthapur and checked into our hotel, than we were taken to an evening event for the feast day celebrations at the local Don Bosco house. This congregation of priests and nuns from the Salesian order work with young people, especially street children. Ours was the last of many cars parked in the drive, since nuns and priests from the whole area had been invited.
We stepped over beautiful coloured chalk designs on the ground outside the house and arrived just as mass was ending. In true Indian style the altar at the end of the room was garlanded with tinsel left over from Christmas, coloured fairy lights and bright flower arrangement.
After the lengthy vote of thanks the chairs were rearranged and pans of rice and food laid out on a long table so that all the nuns and priests and other guests could queue to get their dinner. As we western guests couldn’t possibly be expected to eat with our fingers, a table was brought and a selection of the dishes laid out in front of us with knives, forks and spoons.
We tucked into pilau rice, a fish curry, curds and chapatis, although I noticed that a dish of plain mashed potato, green beans and carrots had thoughtfully been added just in case the spicy food was too much for our sensitive palates. We shook hands and chatted with many of the nuns and priests who all welcomed us and wished us Happy Feast day.
2. A memorial mass in Ananthapur
On Sunday we were up at 6am to attend the 7.30am mass with our host, Father Pratap, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. We had timed our stay to include a Sunday since we wanted to have a special mass in memory of two special friends. My friend and neighbour Marilyn had been with us on a similar charity visit 2 years ago but had died suddenly a few months later, and the son of one of the charity sponsors, Christian, had also died suddenly at a young age, so we had brought photos of them to put at the front of the church.
Robert, my fellow trustee and Marilyn’s husband had joined me on this trip, and we were ushered to sit on plastic chairs in the middle of the church. Behind us were wooden benches where the nuns and older people sat, while in front of us and on the right, ladies sat on the floor in their colourful Sunday-best saris, with younger men and boys sitting to the left. At the front, the choir performed using a keyboard and microphones, with plenty of music throughout the service although no hymn books were in evidence, since everyone seemed to know the words.
After a beautiful commemoration service, Robert and I stood outside the church and gave bags of sugary sweets and snacks in plastic wrapper to the congregation as they came out of church. Later during breakfast in the parish house, we talked about Robert’s late wife, Marilyn and Father Pratap told us how sad the people at Nandikotkur had been when they heard of her death. They had remembered her friendliness and spirit from our previous visit and had held a memorial mass at the same time that we were having the funeral in Bristol.
3. Opening the water purification plant
One of the projects we had come to see was a water purification plant that had been constructed with funds raised by friends of Marilyn at the local leisure centre. The water is pumped up from bore wells deep in the ground but it needs to be filtered and purified before it is good to drink. The alternative for local families is to either buy filtered water or to rely on the piped town supply which is not always clean for drinking. Now with the filtered water, the 3000 children on the school campus could be provided with clean, filtered drinking water, which would be distributed to points around the school for children to use.
During a short ceremony with much laughter and photographs, we cut the ribbon to open the filtration unit and then pulled back the curtain over the plaque. We cracked small, young coconuts on the step in front of the water unit, an Indian tradition since the coconuts are a symbol of purity and good luck. The unit was officially open and after the engineer had made a few final adjustments, the tap was ceremoniously turned on and water flowed into the plastic bucket.
4. Schoolgirls dance for us and we try a few Bollywood moves
From our previous visit we’d learned that whenever you visit a school campus some entertainment is laid on to entertain the honoured guests. Garlands of flowers are put around your neck and votes of thanks are given by your hosts. If you visit India on this kind of trip we’d learned that you need to be prepared to be handed the microphone and make an impromtu speech to a whole school at the drop of a hat!
After opening the water purification plant we were entertained with dances by the 40 schoolgirls who stay in the school hostel on campus, since their villages are too far to come each day. Part of money raised through our charity goes to support these hostels which ensure that even children from remote villages don’t miss out on their education.
We were treated to Bollywood style dances, local village dances in which some of the girls were dressed as men with painted on moustaches, and a graceful rainbow dance. Of course we weren’t to be let off as mere spectators and were dragged up onto the dance floor to much hilarity as we tried to imitate the dance moves and generally made fools of ourselves.
On another occasion we visited the campus of St Anne’s school on the outskirts of Ananthapur to find 300 girls seated in a square in the school playground to give us a school performance. Among the dances was one by girls dressed in white, orange and green, the colours of the Indian flag who danced to a patriotic song about making a better India of the future.
Once again the microphone was handed to me and seeing so many eager, bright girls before me, I gave an off the cuff speech on the importance of education for girls and commended them to work hard for their own future and that of their country. The School Principal followed with a speech in the local Telugu language, translating some of my points about the importance of education for girls.
Afterwards we had an interesting discussion with the School Principal about the future of these school girls to understand why many get married so soon after leaving school. The Catholic schools which are run by nuns are highly valued by parents who want a protective and safe environment in which their daughters can learn. Most girls like to stay close to their families who are concerned about their safety and security, so they favour local colleges for further education and rarely go out of the state. The government is discouraging the dowry system and it is now illegal to insist on a dowry but of course most parents want to give their daughter a good start in life and this can be expensive, leading to loans and debt.
5. I meet my sponsor child
On my previous visit 2 years ago I had met the children that I sponsor, Nileema and her brother Pavan, and once again they had travelled by bus some distance to meet us with their father – you can read about our last meeting here. They really did not look any older than last time I had seen them, and we sat in the parish house and chatted with the help of Father Pratap to translate.
I showed them photos of my family and leafed through a book with photos of Bristol. There’s a limit to what you can say when you don’t speak each other’s language but my experience is that smiles and pictures go a long way. I presented Nileema with some earings that I bought at the local jewellery store and the next morning when we saw her again she was proudly wearing them. It was one of the highlights of the trip to meet the children whose education I help with and feel a personal connection between our families.
6. Lunch and tea with the nuns
Whichever school or campus we visited there was always a house of nuns who would have lunch or tea waiting for us. Everything was prepared with great care, with treats of fried chicken or Indian sweets to tempt us and we were always welcomed with great kindness. Normally each house would have a community of around 6 nuns with the younger ones cheerfully running around and organising the meal. In return we would take them gifts of scented soaps or sweets that we’d brought from England (thankyou M&S!).
In India the nuns hold positions of respect and responsibility; they are nurses, teachers and school principals. Unlike the European countries where few young people are coming forward to serve as nuns and priests, in India there is no shortage. Because the nuns and priests can work in different regions of India, with different regional languages, they all learn English and use it as their lingua franca. I think if I were a girl from a poor background who didn’t fancy an arranged marriage, it would be quite an attractive career choice seeing the responsibility that these communities of nuns hold and the great work they do.
7. Meeting sponsor children
When I first met Father Pratap through my church in Bristol, he was appealing for people to come forward and make regular donations to sponsor the education of children from poor families in his parish. We decided to sponsor a child as did other families and after a while we decided to register a charity to formalise the donations and reclaim tax on them through the government gift-aid scheme.
The Catholic run schools in India are highly regarded and sought after by parents due to their high standards of teaching and dicipline, but they receive little government funding and so parents have to pay a small fee for their children to attend. The sponsoship money that is sent through our charity helps to cover this fee for the poorest families and some of it is also used to fund books and uniforms for all the children.
One of the most enjoyable parts of our trip was meeting these sponsor children and it was very exciting for them also. Before I left Bristol I had a shopping extravaganza buying or getting donated small items of stationary, soaps, toothpaste (thanks to my dentist), pencils and coloured postcards of Bristol so we could show them where we came from. We would put them together so each child we met would have a small package of gifts to take away and they were all thrilled and excited to meet us.
Most touching was when they would give us something back in return and the girls you see in the photo gave me a rose clip for my hair which you can see me wearing. Luckily Father Pratap was there to translate for us, or the delights of the Clifton suspension bridge and the Bristol cathedral, which we showed them pictures of would probably have been lost on them.
8. Drilling bore wells for irrigation
Father Pratap’s jeep took us down narrow roads, surrounded by fields, when we were met by a couple of motorbikes that had come to meet us. They were driven by the farmers who had benefited from two different bore wells that had been sponsored, and the farmers led us on to the fields where they were located.
Father Pratap explained to us how difficult it can be to drill a bore well, since despite employing a water diviner to advise on the best location, there is no guarantee that you will hit water or how deep you will need to drill. Luckily both these wells had hit water but both were currently capped off awaiting an electricity supply which in return required a licence from the local municipality with all the paperwork and bureaucracy involved in India.
When we had visited the villages 2 years before, they were only receiving power for part of the day, which was sometimes cut without warning. Recently things seemed to have improved and the villages were currently getting 24 hours of electricity to their houses, but the agricultural supply was limited to around 3- 4 hours in the day and night time. This meant that the water could only be pumped during those hours, limiting the area of land that could be irrigated. This was a big lesson for me in the politics of infrastructure. Here were we raising money to fund these wells, but perhaps if the government could provide a more consistent electricity supply, they could be used to irrigate twice as much land and feed two families instead of one.
Next to our currently dry wells, we saw another that was gushing water which flowed along channels into the field of groundnuts. We hoped that our sponsored wells would also look like this once they get a power supply. The main crops in this arid area are groundnuts, maize and sunflowers, while if there is a constant water supply more high priced commercial crops such as cotton and chilies can be grown that will fetch a higher price. One well can really transform the fortunes of the family it supports and Father Pratap told us that when these farmers struck water, the celebrations were going on well into the night.
9. The wedding cake church and a mango plantation
The first time I visited Father Pratap in his parish at P. Yaleru, he had recently completed the construction of a new church to replace the old one that was crumbling. Due to the tiered design, we jokingly called it the wedding cake church, and it stood up above the village houses and could be seen from miles away when you approached the village.
On this visit we visited P. Yaleru again and passed by the Little Flower primary school which was run by a nun and two teachers. This was originally a government run primary school but all the teachers had retired and the government no longer supported it, so had been taken over by the church to provide education for the local children.
We walked past the school to the field where a mango plantation had been planted several years ago, with sponsorship from the charity. Father Pratap had told us proudly then how the plantation produced many lorry loads of mangos which were sold to provide income for education and community projects. On our visit two years ago, the plantation had been thriving but since then there had been no rain and the bore well that was being used to irrigate the trees had run dry.
Luckily the trees were by now well established and looked healthy enough, although Father Pratap told us there were fewer flowers than normal. Plans were underway to drill the well deeper after the summer rains and restore the water supply, so that the future of the mango plantation could be assured.
10. The ladies’ tailoring project
In the community hall at Father Pratap’s old parish on Nandikotkur we found a large group of ladies in their brightly coloured festival saris and jewellery awaiting us, seated on the floor. These ladies had been studying 6 days a week for 6 months how to be tailors, and we were shown a sample book with doll-sized examples of the clothes that they had made as part of their training.
This was the third group of 15-18 ladies that had been trained and Father Pratap hoped to continue the project with further groups and also bring the project to his new parish if further sponsors could be found. The ladies entertained us with much dancing and singing, together with a skit about women who were running a tea stall but exhorted by their friends to come to join the tailoring project so they could earn a better living.
It was heartening to see the women singing songs of empowerment and know that they would now have the opportunity to earn money to support their families. The tailoring teacher sat on the floor since she did not have the use of her legs due to polio and Father Pratap had sent her for training for a year so she could learn to be a tailoring instructor.
At the end of the entertainment, we presented each of the ladies with a sewing machine that they could take home so that they could take on tailoring work in their neighbourhood. This was their graduation ceremony and we were glad to be there to celebrate their achievement.
11. Visiting Fatima at home
While we were at the parish house, Father Pratap introduced us to Fatima, a Muslim lady who worked for him and her young son who was one of our sponsor children. Later that day, we visited her at home so we could get a feel for how many of Father Pratap’s parishioners live.
We stepped inside the one room house where Fatima lives with her husband and son, where everything was neat and clean. There was just space for a bed and a TV with all the pots and utensils on high shelves around the walls. In fact this house is rented and Fatima and her husband do have their own house that her husband built on a small plot that they were given in another part of town.
The problem is that they had to take out a loan to fund the house at a high rate of interest from a private moneylender, since no bank would lend them the money. When they fell behind with the loan the lenders agreed to waive the interest on the loan in return for living in the house themselves. Until Fatima and her husband’s situation improves, they won’t be able to recover the use of the house they built and the lenders are happily living there with no inclination to move.
12. Visiting the Vincente Ferrer foundation campus
We visited the pleasant campus of the Vincente Ferrer foundation, a Spanish charitable foundation that runs schools for mentally disabled, sight and hearing impaired children and runs a handicraft workshop for disabled women, most of whom had no use of their legs.
We found the ladies making brightly painted Papier Mache toys and animals, plaiting and coiling coloured rushes to make table mats and forming tough leaves into disposable plates that would be used at wedding buffet. We longed to buy some of the colourful moneyboxes and later went to the official shop where they are sold in another part of town.
The mentally handicapped children were so sweet and excited when we went into their classroom, jumping and dancing around for us. The four nuns that we visited on the campus oversee the running of these schools as part of the foundation, although this is not a Catholic institution and in fact takes pains to treat all religions equally, giving help on the basis of poverty rather than religion following the principle of the founder, a former Jesuit priest.
13. At the English medium Holy Spirit secondary school
On our previous visit we had been impressed by the large Holy Spirit English Medium secondary school which is run by the nuns and has around 700 children. In India there are both Telugu Medium schools that teach in the local language and English Medium schools that teach in English. Unsurprisingly, parents favour the English medium schools since their children will learn English and will have better job prospects and opportunities to work in other parts of India.
We toured many of the classrooms and noticed the discipline of the children and their focus on learning. I looked over their shoulder in one classroom and saw that they were doing computer studies, learning in English the theory of things that seemed quite complex to me, which would be followed up with a practical lesson in their computer room.
Although all the children were smartly dressed in their uniforms, I remembered that on our previous visit they had all been wearing their own clothes. The School Principal had explained that during the week they have a day to wear their own clothes which gives them an opportunity to wash their uniform, since most families could only afford one or two sets of school uniform.
As it was lunchtime all the children filed out quietly into the dusty playground and sat under the trees eating their lunch, although as we also sat down to eat ours with the nuns we could hear the noise levels rising as they finished lunch and become more exuberant in their playtime.
If you made it this far in this long article, I thank you for joining me on this journey – what was your favourite story from my trip? The truth is that in this kind of work there is no difference between giving and receiving; they are two sides of the same coin and I have come away from my visits to India far richer than I went.
If you want to help in any small way, I have a paypal account that’s just for this UK Registered charity Families Initiative For India (F.I.F.I) – Charity No 1093565 which you can find here or donate directly via Paypal [email protected] or through the Donate button below.
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