By Struan Tait, Old Bedalian 2014-16
I have been rather reluctant to write this report, as I feel that to accurately describe three months of my life would be impossible in such an official way. Nevertheless, I am keen to complete the trip with this report.
I arrived in Jaipur along with Lydia Hallam (OB 2014-16) on the 24 September 2016, but my journey had really begun in mid-August. I had several Visa related issues which prevented me easily beginning my trip on the original date of 17 September. These issues included missing specific documents required by the Indian High Commission, in the form of a ‘Registration Certificate’ of Mayoor School – government documentation that proved that the school was registered and did indeed exist. Upon requesting these documents from the school, I was surprisingly told that such documents did not exist and so could not be provided to me.
Mayoor is a private school and the school said that no government registration had ever officially occurred. As you can see, I was in a bit of a pickle. I needed these documents to procure my Entry Visa, but they were seemingly non-existent. Many discussions over the phone were had between myself, the Visa centre and Mayoor School to try to solve this issue. In the end, I had to resort to getting the manager of the Visa centre to liaise with the Vice Principal, Adhiraj Singh, about exactly what was required. This phone call took place on 14 September – three days before my original departure date. Feeling that there would not be enough time for my Visa to be processed before leaving, I decided to postpone my departure date to one week later. This provided ample time for Mayoor School to finally understand the request and for me to receive the documents sent via email. The extraordinary thing about the entire process was that Lydia, in the exact same position as I, was not required to provide this document, and that in the entire history of Mayoor’s international visits, they had not been required to provide this document. Overall, this process was incredibly stressful. I was not living in London and so had to make a 5am commute every day until the issue was resolved. Coupled with the fact that Mayoor School finishes at 2pm local time and with a 4.5/5 hour time zone difference, I did not enjoy this process.
Upon receiving my Visa and meeting Lydia at Heathrow and saying goodbye to my family, everything went satisfyingly smoothly. Our route into Jaipur, Rajasthan took us via Mumbai and the entire journey took around 20 hours. We were met there by Mr. Yadav and the Principal’s driver who proceeded to take us on the last leg of our journey. I can tell you now, nothing will give you a bigger culture shock than having a two hour car journey through India. To begin with, we were told not to put our seatbelts on – they didn’t work anyway, but ever-excited to try something new, we got ready for our long journey ahead. Our exhaustion suddenly vanished as we drove through the streets of Jaipur, where traffic rules and safety regulations are a distant concept. Between the street beggars, homeless children and wandering salesmen, Lydia and I became very aware that we were in a new country. Although not intimidating, the attention drawn to us by our light skin and especially Lydia’s long, curly, blonde hair was very apparent and would become a running theme of the trip.
We arrived at Mayoor School at approximately 8pm local time where we were met by Pooja Nagpal, the international co-ordinator and our surrogate mother for the trip; Alice and Liz, English Teachers from the British Council who happened to be here at the time and Reshma, our wonderful and ever-smiling domestic help. After exchanging a few frantic handshakes and greetings with one another, we were led inside to our accommodation. As part of the ‘Mayoor Colony’, our house had been recently renovated and fitted with furniture and new appliances. With enough beds for four people, a kitchen, living room, washing machine and stable wifi connection, it became apparent that this would quickly become our home. Pooja introduced us to the Principal, Neeraj Bedhotiya, who happened to live over the road from us, and told us that we could sleep in in the morning, and that we would be having a tour of their sister school, Mayo College, in the afternoon. Once the Principal and Pooja left, Reshma made us some pasta and left us for the night.
Lydia and I promptly unleashed a torrent of questions at Alice and Liz regarding what the school was like, what we should expect and what the children were like, they were happy to fill us in. As mentioned, Alice and Liz were working in India on behalf of the British Council, who had organised some two hundred new graduates to live and work in India for several months. Alice and Liz were randomly paired together and Mayoor School became their new home for around five months, beginning in August and finishing when we did on 20 December. I can honestly say that without the help and presence of Alice and Liz, my time at Mayoor would have been significantly less enjoyable, and I feel that my sanity would have dwindled long before it finished. They were an invaluable help for Lydia and myself and continue to be fantastic friends even after the trip.
After a tour around Mayo College with a housemaster called Yash, we were invited into his home for some snacks and a drink. Now, the required age for purchasing and having alcohol in Rajasthan is twenty-one, and of course with Lydia and myself being nineteen and eighteen respectively, we clearly did not meet these requirements. We slowly began to realise with more and more visits to teacher’s homes over the duration of our trip that the Principal had told members of the staff who were planning on having us round that alcohol would not be provided due to our age. This led to some interesting alternatives. Yash was a great connoisseur of whiskey, as many of the male population of India are, and he wasted no time in showing off his huge cupboard of international liquors that he had collected over the years. Alas, to his disappointment he could not share these with us, and so an alternative was produced. I, trying to be as polite as I could be in someone’s home, would have hastily accepted any drink offered to me at that point in time, and as such accepted the beverage of lime water and salt, believing that it would help me adjust to the Indian climate. It did not. One thing I realised about British people while I was in India was that we are unbelievably compliant with even the strangest of requests, for fear of seeming rude or harsh. This innate reaction had to be tamed over the duration of our trip, or else we would have returned in much unhealthier states than we began.
In the evening, there was a party held in the principal’s garden, and we were told to come along and meet the teachers. Lydia and I, of course, were completely in over our heads when attempting to meet the faculty and learn their names all in one sitting, and so quickly gave up in hope and just tried to blend in with the bushes and not draw too much attention to ourselves. This did not go as planned as Ivan, quite possibly happiest man I’ve ever met, declared that the games would start and everyone should join in. We were told to pair up and stand on an allocated page of a newspaper. Lydia and I paired up, Liz paired with a man we would later learn to be Sanjay (or Sunny) whilst Alice struggled to find someone, and so settled for the Principal himself. The game was to dance with each other without stepping off the newspaper. Every time the music stopped, the newspaper would be folded in half and those who could not continue were removed. This was incredibly funny, especially as Alice and the Principal managed to get quite far, and resorted to standing on each other before finally falling over. The party was a success, and there were many more to be had.
The next day, too jetlagged to have had a proper night’s sleep, was our first day at work. Prior to starting, Lydia and I had no idea at all about what was going to be expected from us. We had been told in various Skype calls that we would be helping with the teaching and perhaps taking a lesson every now and again, and for the most part this was true. School at that time started at 8am and finished at 2pm every day including Saturdays, as it got far too hot in the afternoon for anyone to continue functioning. We were given a tour of the school by Ivan, and we quickly learnt the ins and outs of our surroundings. Less than a minute away from our accommodation and within the same confines, was the Waddington Grounds, where all sport, assemblies and school events took place. This was the heart of the school and had one of the best cricket pitches I’ve ever played on. Surrounding this was the Kota Art School, the Chowk (a sort of amphitheatre type arrangement with a stage), the music school, IT department and the main stage. I didn’t spend much time in these areas due to teaching mainly Maths and Science, but I quickly became familiar with them. Moving further away from the grounds were a large row of classrooms for Classes VIII to X, and then the staff room. I feel that I spent so much time in that staff room that when I gracefully find myself in old age I will still be able to accurately recreate that room with all its intricacies in my mind. One side of the staff room led to the middle school (Classes VI to VII) and the other side led into the Science building of which the top floor was still being constructed. The construction and maintenance of this building was carried out by plainclothes labourers, both male and female, with absolutely no health and safety precautions or even shoes. This was strange at first, but if there is one thing you would quickly learn about arriving in India, is that it is the land of extremes.
After our tour of the secondary school, we were shown the primary school, which was adjacent to the Science building, and full to the brim of smiling, inquisitive children. As teachers, Alice taught exclusively in the primary, with Lydia and I teaching a mixture of both primary and secondary and Liz teaching exclusively secondary. So, the primary would quickly become a home for Lydia and me as well as the secondary. During our visit to the primary we were told by the primary Principal that we would both be taking several classes here respectively. I was given V-A and V-B, whilst Lydia had a mixture of Class III and IV. To our surprise, our tours deposited us at these classes and we were suddenly met by 30-40
new faces. This was terrifying. In all my preparation time for this trip it had never actually occurred to me that I would be their full teacher, responsible for setting homework, planning and leading lessons, constructing tests and dispensing discipline. Upon walking into Class V-B for the very first time and being introduced to the class, I was literally given the floor. I introduced myself, being as clear as possible whilst trying not to patronise the children who I assumed would have been very much like me on a hot Monday morning – not caring who I was at all. However, they all stood. In one loud and confident voice they said: “Namaste Sir!”. That was the first time I think I have ever been called ‘Sir’ unironically and it brought back so many strange memories of my secondary school experience before joining Bedales. I replied, saying Namaste back towards them and strangely they all stood still, not returning to their seats. I looked around to see if they were waiting on anything and it became apparent that they were waiting for me to give them permission to sit. This was incredibly unfamiliar for me, as not four months prior I myself was a student, albeit a very complacent one, who would certainly not give anywhere near the amount of respect I was receiving here. After telling them to return to their seats I was told by their teacher that they were doing English during that lesson, and that I would be teaching them EVS (Environmental Sciences) in their future lessons. Now, by this point I had been given a primary science book and decided to flick through it the night before to just make sure that there wasn’t anything outrageously difficult or unfamiliar to me, which there wasn’t thankfully, so I asked the teacher what topic we were learning now. “The heart”, was the response I got from Ma’am Mansi, the teacher, and she told me to prepare to give a lesson on it tomorrow. This is when the panic set in. I am rather good at winging some things but winging an hour-long lesson with around forty children where language was a barrier was a new one for me, and I was sure I couldn’t do it.
After meeting the class I was returned to the staff room where I began to frantically prepare for the next day. Not knowing where to begin, I was extremely thankful that Lydia was in a similar position to me and was also panicking. Again, thankfully Alice and Liz were there and knew exactly what we were going through and so helped settle us down and gave us a run-through of how they had approached their first lessons. Lydia and I finally managed to plan our first lesson but were only a fraction less stressed. What if something went wrong? What if they asked us something we didn’t know? What if there was a naughty child and we had to act? What if they just all disregarded us and laughed when we tried to explain something? These were only some of the questions that Lydia and myself found ourselves panicking over, and unfortunately for us, only in time would we find the answers.
Towards the end of our first day, all four of us were told to meet at the IT department for the reveal of the new school website that happened to be being released on that day. In this reveal, the Principal led the assembly, with confidence and pride in the latest online presence for Mayoor. They had a chief guest for this event, a position which we would become very familiar with as in India they have ‘chief guests’ for all types of recognisable events. The chief guest was a lovely old man who was on the Mayo council and was an Old Mayo Boy and teacher, and he happily presented the new website to the school. After some other addresses by the Principal, he announced Lydia and myself to the school and gave us a quick introduction and then asked us to come up to address the school. Now I am unable to actually put into words how much this scared and shocked me, as I funnily enough have a huge amount of stage fright, and could think of absolutely nothing worse than standing up and addressing everyone. Lydia, next to me, was noticeably shocked as well and after a quick terrified glance at one another, we made our way up to the front. “Thank you all for welcoming me, and I hope we all have a great time together” is all I think I could muster. I still try to block that memory of pure terror but thankfully the school received it well applauded me all the same. Lydia’s address was much more eloquent and confident, and so set a great tone for our arrival.
The rest of that week went very slowly indeed, between trying to get our sleep schedule in order, trying to adjust to the heat, the food, the people and everything else in this new place we’d come to call home. The teaching was initially very difficult, as what was expected of us was not entirely clear and we often felt like we were under-performing. That’s a running theme with our stay: a lack of clarity about what was expected of us, and if we were doing it well enough. This was probably due to our trip being the first of its kind from Bedales, but also because we ourselves had only just completed school, and we found the transition to becoming a teacher quite strange. Often, I would be teaching and talking to my pupils as if they were my younger sibling. I feel like that was the most effective way for me to communicate with them and give them an honest “Western Experience”. This phrase “Western Experience” was used a lot whenever the Principal was talking to Lydia and I during our initial Skype interviews, and only really become more ambiguous as time went on. We were there as cultural experience for the kids, to broaden their horizons within an international context, let them see what it was like to be in a Western classroom. That in itself meant that we were unable to ever really feel what we were doing was worthwhile for the kids. What I am trying to say here is that although we were helping, the help wasn’t needed, and that became very apparent as time went on.
Our weekends were what we cherished most. We spent as many of them as we could traveling around and seeing as much of Rajasthan as possible. Ajmer is actually very well positioned in terms of location as it is very central within Rajasthan and has a large train station where we could begin all of our journeys. Our first weekend was spent in Pushkar, a neighbouring ‘city’ which was really no larger than Petersfield. We spent the nights in a Zostel – a franchise of hostels, which was full of English speaking travellers and all-round cool people. Pushkar was our first real taste of India, its bustling markets, wandering cows and absolutely filthy streets were all new to Lydia and I, but thanks to the guidance of Alice and Liz, we really enjoyed it. The incredibly cheap prices were all too tempting for Lydia and I as we both came away from our first day at the markets fully kitted out in all the necessities of a Brit-Abroad. I bought myself two huge pairs of trousers with zippy pockets and elastic drawstrings and they pretty much became my travelling uniform for the next few months, and even still here in the UK I wear them regularly. Pushkar was also our first taste of Indian food on-the-go. We found the ‘Lake View Café’ and managed to spend roughly six hours in there, getting to know each other, eating and enjoying the weather. As we would soon become accustomed to, most of our food would have some form of chili or pepper, or both, in order to give it one heck of a kick. I began my trip absolutely hating spice in my food, but have come away with such a preference for it that I find meals too bland without it.
As well as visiting Pushkar a number of times throughout our stay, we also went to Udaipur. Udaipur was a fantastic city and by far my favourite trip. Lydia and I went alone as Alice and Liz were seeing some friends in Mumbai at the time, and it was our first trip without them since arriving. At first, we didn’t know what to expect of the trains as we had not yet experienced them. We were very lucky on our train to Udaipur as it was only five hours and relatively empty due to it being the early morning train. However, on the way back, we found that this was not the norm. The average train journey in India is filled with crying babies, snoring adults, loud talking and spontaneous picnics throughout the carriage. Even though we always travelled by AC3 Tier (which was probably the second-best tier), we rarely had a lot of personal space or privacy. The train journeys we took in India were also probably longer than most long-haul flights, with our longest and most painful being a thirteen-and-a-half journey from Jaipur to Jaisalmer during the day. Not fun.
After a few weeks of adjustments and acclimatising, we were pretty settled in our Indian lives. We knew where the nearest supermarkets were and the rough pricing of everything for us as foreigners. “Skin Tax” is a phrase which we became familiar with as it was the underlying code which the majority of Indians used when deciding the price of things. Essentially, they saw that we were foreign, and they would give us an inflated price for something because of it. It wasn’t discrimination per se, but rather an ‘idiot test’ to see how gullible we were. We were initially very susceptible to it, as we were unfamiliar to the world of bartering and were far too polite to give such a low-ball of an offer.
This report is something that I would have cherished about a year ago when I was in the position of deciding about going or not, and in the end although it was difficult and strange, it was also wonderful. Everyone should experience India, even if you end up hating it. I certainly am happy with my trip and cannot wait to go back. To any students currently at Bedales reading this: do it. Go for it and see what happens. Mayoor will look after all of your problems and the rest is up to you. This report is not even a fraction as detailed as I would want it to be, but I don’t feel like I could do my experience justice by writing it all down anyway. So if anyone wants to ask me more about it or wants to hear more of my story then please reach out to me. As I say I would have loved this insight into the experience before going, so I want to help anyone out there that is thinking about it too.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at Struanmtait@gmail.com