Friday, 17 May 2013

Three weeks in India - a long time in politics

Beginnings and ends inevitably go together. And the end of my world journey came sooner than I'd planned.

I arrived in India just a few weeks ago. I stayed with my friend Annie who has just emigrated. She met Badri, a lawyer, in London. Her engagement present was a rescue greyhound. They had two weddings, one in London and one in India - Tamil weddings are much smaller than the lavish Punjabi style Indian weddings we are used to. The lovely Theo was born within the year. Annie left her job and they all - including Henry (the greyhound) - moved to live with their in-laws in down town Chennai. A new life in India. Most certainly an adventure. Annie is one of the many people this year who have inspired me this year, making a bold choice to change something about their lives.

From the moment I arrived, it was the colours of India that struck me. Deep and vibrant - fuchsia pink, golden yellow, Christmas green and red and the brightest of blues. These colours dominate hand painted advertisements on every wall, the folds of women's saris - bellies on show, the tunic and trousers - Salwar Kameez - that younger women wear - less fiddly than a sari , the upholstered insides of autos (what the Thais call tuk-tuks) and the green coconuts and piles of yellow mangoes in season. Chennai is hot and humid in May, there are relentless mosquitoes kept at bay in Annie's house by staff with electric tennis bats. There are daily power cuts on a 2 hour rolling schedule across the city as well as some unscheduled ones. Thankfully Annie's in-laws run a generator which keeps the fans spinning and the air con available.

Chennai doesn't have really have a centre. It has few tourist sites and few tourists. For well-off Indians and ex-Pats there is a big 5 star hotel and club scene. And by club, I am not talking Heaven or Cargo, this is about clubs set up by the British and now the hang out of the wealthy, who lunch at the Leela or swim at the Cricket Club. I swam in the pool at the Sheraton and went to watch the fast paced spectacle of an IPL Cricket game - Twenty20 cricket -complete with cheer leaders and a pumping soundtrack. Annie and I discussed the difference between an ex-Pat and an immigrant. There are certainly connotations that go with both. One is white, rich and temporary, the other has negative associations - certainly in Britain the moment. Really of course both are labels for outsiders or others.

India is so vast and diverse that the understanding lies in the diversity. The population of India (1.3 billion) is four times that of the United States (316 million) though its is a third if its land mass. This makes India one of the most populous countries in the world - one crowded country. There are somewhere between 400 and 1000 mother tongues though 30 languages spoken by over 1 million people. Hindi is India's language in the constitution - Hindi and associated dialects are predominantly spoken in the north by 73% of the population. In the South people speak another group of languages similar to Tamil. Google India gives 9 language options - these dominate. English is spoken throughout the country and spoken incredibly well by India's middle class who still consider the best education to be one through English. India is a democracy - the biggest in the world - though there are some aspects of its politics that were far from subtle. Photographs of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu were posted everywhere around Chennai. Ironically at a time when India is under scrutiny because of the dreadful pattern of rape across the country, Indian women remain a big presence in politics. However it is social status, not gender remains the main determiner of destiny.

Annie used my visit as an opportunity to travel and organised for us to go and stay in a safari lodge on the outskirts of Mudumala - a national park. An environmental group is currently campaigning for the closure of this safari lodge as it is in the path of what they call an elephant corridor. Watch out! Elephants coming through! The owners of the resort argues that they have all the necessary permits to be on the land and that they employ 33 people, many of whom are 'tribals', a rather outdated term, meaning the people who have lived in the area longer than anyone can remember. We went on two safaris into the jungle. The landscape is sparse and dry - not what you would necessarily think of as jungle. We saw peacocks, elephants, bison, black faced monkeys and giant orange and black squirrels. (The squirrels were black and orange - there were no orange squirrels.) At night the watch man came to tell guests 'there's an elephant on the property'. Midnight, stars, cocktails and a tusked elephant - one of those magical moments.

All the other tourists at the lodge were Indian mainly professionals living a 4 hour drive away in Bangalore. It was here that I met the impressive Roohi - an Indian film maker who has just finished a film called Scattered Windows, Connecting Doors. Roohi spent a year interviewing 8 incredible women. They live independent lives and in their own ways all break the mould. A quote from the trailer resonated,

'The more we have fearless, strong women walking around on their own, taking autos, taking buses the stronger we are.'

This was in welcome contrast to the police commissioner in Mumbai - the area with the lowest conviction rate for crimes against women - who suggested women should not travel at night and asked police officers to fine couples for being in isolated areas after dark. Fortunately the Chief Minister got involved and police are going to have 'gender sensitisation training'. That said Mumbai is considered one of the safest cities for women amongst the Indians I spoke with.

I travlled very little by myself in India but I did meet other women who had, including Sue - the Halifax grandmother on her own career break. At home she provides respite care to young people with disabilities. She had volunteered in a children's centre and had loved her experience. She, like others I spoke to, found the reality did not match the media scare.

Education remained a theme of my time in India. Annie and I know each other through school leadership and education is big business in India. Anyone who is anyone is setting up a school. The discussion about which schools are best centre around the curriculum they deliver. India has just introduced a bill to ensure every child has access to education but the act has run into trouble and some schools are having to close as they are not meeting the requirements of the new law. So called 'slum schools' vary vastly in quality with low paid, less well trained staff. India is just beginning to benefit from the initiatives pioneered in the US and UK like Teach First and Teach America. Some states lead the way including Kerala which was the other state I visited.

Kerala has a lot to be proud of. It has a population half the size of the UK, the highest Literacy rate in the country 93%, the highest life expectancy (74 years), the highest ratio of men to women and the lowest murder rate. It has a strong economy, once built on spices, though now thriving on money sent back by Keralans working in the Middle East. Kerala is also one of the few states with an elected Communist government - albeit one that is part of a coalition. Perhaps it is the combination of wealth, education and the desire to create a society that looks after all, that gives Kerala a much more relaxed feel than other parts of India. A society that is better for everyone - rich and poor.

Kerala is also different from Tamilnadu in that it is lush and green, criss crossed by a network of backwaters. I visited Varkala with old Cardiff friend - Dan. A hippy town with several ashrams and a beach where a group of tourists don bikinis and sunbathe. This is of course not very Indian at all. Pale is unfortunately still the aspiration for many in India and cosmetic companies use subtle and not so subtle marketing strategies to sell their whitening products. I was delighted to see a British Dove advertisement the other day with women talking about the things they like about their friends' bodies. A celebration of difference? Proctor and Gamble are however the same company who sell these whitening products. It is just advertising - though at least Dove is a more positive message - you are beautiful as you are. The local people gathered at the other end of the beach posing for photos with their friends. Sometimes the cameras turn on me as a foreigner. I suppose this is pay back for trying to take surreptitious photographs of numerous people in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia who looked amazing to me.

The next and final bit of my round the world trip was supposed to be further travel in India and then two weeks in Sri Lanka with my parents. I was in India when my mum sent me an email. She mentioned that the Labour Party in Cardiff North, was selecting its candidate for the next election. The forms were due in six days later.

It is not often your home constituency is on the look out for their next Labour candidate and hopefully Member of Parliament. I took a deep breath. This was a choice that could change the rest of my life. An opportunity. I spoke to some old friends. What was the worst that could happen? I thought about so many of the people that I have met and found out about along this journey. Like Albert Camus' L'etranger, their actions have defined them. Here are just a few.

In the United States - The homesteaders who upped sticks and moved across country to settle on a square in the middle of nowhere that became Kansas and their grand daughter Jo who still lives in their home. Kate who studied Russian, who met Todd and now brings her family up in Virginia. Dan in St Louis whose daughter had just started working for the Democrats inspired by her grandmother who campaigned for Kennedy. Meurig and Mary Lou whose enthusiasm for life took them to Indonesia for 10 years and more recently across the States in their RV. Delaine, the native American woman who continues to campaign for the rights of her people and is at the centre of the mixed community on the border of Utah and Nevada. Mike who took a job running a bar in the middle of Nevada as a different kind of retirement. Mary who moved to Hawaii from Scotland and now swims in the ocean with an impressive group of women.

In New Zealand - Lydia and Duncan who moved for a change of life and have thrown themselves into the community of the disaster hit Christchurch - manning life boats and communications if there is an earthquake. Andy who is happy embracing a new life in Wellington that involves family, cycling up steep hills and finding the best cafés in town. Tef who was a New Yorker to the core in asking for exactly what he wanted and had been bold in going to different places to work.

In Australia - Bill, Sharon and Marty who showed their value of friendship and kindness, helping me along the road to Sydney by making connections and checking I was safe. Friendship and loyalty defined them. James Grudgeon who took moved out to Australia following the well trodden path of so many 'Poms' looking for something different and set on making a life in Melbourne. Yvonne, the Brisbane hairdresser who at 19 was braver than me in her willingness to do things on her own. Her words have stayed with me 'We are born alone and we die alone. We might as well get used to it'.

In Brunei - Hilary who took up a job in teaching in an International School and was shortly followed by Tony who she married two years later. Mr Noorhaizamdin whose down to earth and sparky personality made him a well respected community figure.

In Thailand - 59 year old, super skinny, chain smoking Beatrice who left her husband at home in France to travel for the winter to buy goods to design her own jewellery. She sat drinking beer with the best of us in the disco car of the night train to Chaing Mai. Javier who set up a cafe business with a passion to understand what his customers are looking for and introduced me to the art of picking the best banana pancakes in Thailand. Summer, a 30 something American who cycled by herself along the Thai/Burma border - a task that I shied away from - before she returns to run her business - a popular summer café in Alaska.

In Vietnam - Van the lawyer, who works for Blue Dragon and whose work has rescued 100s of young people from slave labour and prostitution. Jo who spent months working in an orphanage in Vietnam and in the short time she was there tried to make a longer term difference.

In Malaysia - Kendra and Natalie, who were willing to try different things and be honest about their love of home. JJ who went to Britain to university before coming back to his native Malaysia and setting up a screening centre making a huge difference to his home community. Claire who had just fulfilled her dream of writing, recording and releasing her first EP on iTunes.

In India - Dave the investigative journalist who had to be smuggled out of Sri Lanka for asking too many questions. He was in Varkala investigating religious exploitation in ashrams. Oli who worked for his family's jewellery business. A business comprised 13 factories in India that make products using gem stones from all over Asia and Africa.

Cycling buddy James who made a choice and went home from the trip showing, through his actions, his love for his family and partner Helen. I learnt a lot from his company - 4000 miles gives you the opportunity to cover a lot of conversational ground. Somewhere close to therapy.

And Meurig and Gwendolyn - otherwise known as my parents, who after resolutely stating they would not be joining me on my world adventure, came to California and Australia to join in the adventure and now continue the journey in Sri Lanka without me.

This is just a short list of the inspiring people I have met along the way. So many people who have lived lives. And there are more whose words I find myself repeating, whose stories I have shared. I am sorry that you are all not mentioned here.

Recently I have also been hugely inspired by my friend Sacha. Her baby Boris (her partner is Bulgarian) was born in November. He was born with a large stomach and diagnosed with rare form of cancer. He has had to go chemo therapy and various treatments that have meant Sacha and her partner have spent most of the last 7 months in four walls in Great Ormond Street. Sacha is also writing a blog and it was these paragraphs that had me choked. She was writing when her cousin got married. She had expected to be able to go back to Australia but obviously times changed.

"Disappointment, and grieving for the loss of long held dreams of how things were meant to be are troublesome feelings that come to me every now and then, as you can imagine. But the antidote for these feelings is to become truly present and appreciate every moment for what it is."

"Of course the future is uncertain for Boris and there are many things for us to worry about, but isn’t this true for everyone? None of us know that when we say goodbye to our partner as they head to work whether or not that will be the last goodbye. Nothing is given, and you can choose to be oppressed or liberated by this fact. Each moment is precious and irreplaceable. Whether that is in Cubicle 14, Elephant Ward, Great Ormond Street Hospital or outside in some more carefree place."

Life is sometimes what you do and choose and we are lucky if we are in a position to make these choices. Sometimes things do not go as planned and sometimes we cannot choose what we want. I want, does not get. Sacha's positive and reflective response to her situation is humbling. And in a sense it is Sacha's response that defines her.

Opportunities do not come up every day and life is a one time shot. I decided I would give the selection a go. I filled in the form and as I did so I realised my experience in politics when I was younger, my record on campaigning and my ten years in the classroom and in school leadership were a reasonable record to stand on. People often talk about how they want people to represent them who have had experience outside of the political arena. We will see.

Two days later I was nominated by my home branch and one other. People had put their trust in me from afar. A week certainly is a long time in politics. It was time to get on the next flight back. The campaign is now well underway and Labour members make their decision on June 22nd.

After 9 months reflecting on the history and politics of the world, it feels absolutely right to be returning to my home to the lives of people in Cardiff, Wales and the UK. This year I have had experiences and time that have helped me to reaffirm my values.

All people, no matter where or to whom they are born are of equal worth. I believe society should be organised to allow people to flourish and that government has a responsibility to address as much as possible the inequalities they are born into. We all have a responsibility to create a society that is and feels fair so that working hard pays.

So many examples from my travels have confirmed this for me. In the USA inequalities in healthcare, the lack of democracy and freedom of speech in Vietnam, the lower life expectancy of Aboriginal people in Australia, the conflict of development versus environmental devastation in Malaysia, the distasteful sex trade in Thailand, the race to find energy from our planet to fulfil demand that causes so many frequent power cuts in India. So many different issues and so important to start somewhere and where I have the skills and understanding to make a difference. Where better than home?

So what I have learnt over 9 months? A few themes have reoccurred:
People are the same the world over. There are huge differences of course in culture, language and social norms but we are most definitely the same animal.

When James and I set off on our cycling trip we asked the people we met -What would you teach the world? And finally I come to answering the question. Although I think it is perhaps the wrong question as there is inbuilt an assumption of the 'teacher' being the expert. Nonetheless as I asked others to answer the question then I should answer it myself.

If I could teach the world one thing it would be to ... (slightly more than one thing)

Be bold. Take choices. Live and shape the consequences.
Know that you have influence and use it. All the time.
Be aware of your own prejudices, we all have them
The big picture helps understanding but also the smallest actions matter.
There is no point in looking for happiness in the future- the moment is all you have. Learn to appreciate life as it goes along. Each day.

In fact if I could teach the world one thing it would be that you can learn an infinite amount by talking and listening to others. Everyone has a story, if you have the time to listen.

It has been an incredible journey. Thank you for accompanying me along the way.

The end? Perhaps another beginning.

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