Thursday, 27 October 2011

Diwali lights and frights

Diwali is the festival of lights, so this is peak season for Indian illuminations manufacturers everywhere. Delhi is lit up a hundred shades of neon, and it's clearly a mark of some pride as to who can get their house looking the glitziest. Mr and Mrs Mehandru are away, so my own house has been left in gloomy, unlit solitude among the neighbourhood's most impressive efforts:

Even the building sites are illuminated:

Their open frontages also provide handy places for the locals to enjoy the displays from of an evening. Any structure stable enough to support it is host to a gaggle of people gathered around a shared meal, looking out at the glittering city:

Of course, nowhere is more glittering than the temples - this is one just near Defence Colony market, which I almost ended up living just outside (it would have been pretty, but I think the early morning bells would probably have been a little bit more spirituality than I'm looking for):

Not all that long ago, Diwali must have been a serenely beautiful time to be in Delhi: the glow of candlelight, families gathered to celebrate together, a temporary lull to the clamour of daily life.

Then someone invented fireworks.

I have a confession to make: I really don't like fireworks. I don't mind them so much if they are a big, organised, large-scale display that look genuinely impressive and happen (a) rarely and (b) sufficiently far away not to scare the living crap out of me. Generally speaking these are the kind of fireworks I was brought up with. Anyone growing up in England in the 1980s was subjected to such a barrage of horror stories about the dangers of fireworks every October that most of us are too terrified to even touch one of the damn things. Fireworks, we have been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe, should only ever be lit at a distance of at least 10 metres from the crowd, who should be safely penned in by a magical rope (one assumes), by a responsible adult which (this is important) most of us will NEVER BE. Also, bonfires kill hedgehogs.

The point is, I come from a culture which may condone getting totally bladdered and vomiting in the streets, but which tends to frown on waving explosives around like toys or setting them up in the middle of the street without so much as a by-your-leave. Being of a sensitive disposition with regards to things that go bang in the first place, the result is that I really do not like fireworks going off willy-nilly in my vicinity.

I've long since learned that this is yet another thing that the English do not have in common with quite a lot of the world. Anyone who has spent New Year in the Netherlands may share my sense of bemusement that an otherwise eminently sensible people transform themselves, once a year, into a bunch of loons who think it's a hoot to lob firecrackers at total strangers in the street. My first experience of Dutch New Year was one of total terror in a heaving Amsterdam, when my friend Helen was nearly swamped by a crowd surge caused by someone randomly letting off a load of the things right in the middle of the packed Leidseplein. More recently the annual transformation of the lovely, graceful city of The Hague into a smoking war zone was a regular source of distress.

Delhi, though, is another level. Health and safety is not exactly top of people's concerns here in the first place, but the devil-may-care attitude to life and limb shown by Delhi drivers transformed my evening stroll (undertaken to bring you good people the above photos, I hope you are grateful) into something out of Saving Private Ryan (I exaggerate but a little), complete with flaming missiles, underfoot booby traps and unexpected explosions. The nadir was when, walking alongside a beautifully lit park, I was stopped in my tracks by a rolling cylinder flaming merrily at one end, which rattled gently across three feet in front of me. I had time to back up a further 10 feet or so when it went whooshing up into the air - had I carried on walking, it would basically have gone whooshing up into me.

Also, at least the Dutch New Year only lasts one night. The banging and crashing has been going on for the best part of a week now and I'm starting to get a little tired of the cacophony, particularly since yesterday my body conspired to give me a hellish migraine on top of it all (I really don't recommend having a migraine in Delhi during Diwali). Goodness only knows what the local animals are making of it all (come to think of it, the number of stray dogs around has gone down markedly in the last week).

So I've become a bit of a Diwali scrooge. Yes, the lights are pretty and it's lovely that everyone gives everyone gifts and that people actually get a bit of time off for a change. But enough of the banging, people. Please?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

This is why I'm proud of what I do

This post isn't about India, but it is about my work (which is, after all, the reason I am here in the first place). I haven't talked much about my job on here, because I want to keep the blog mainly focused on my experiences in India and because, being a policy wonk, much of what I do would not, I admit, make for particularly interesting reading for most people.

But I am really proud of what I do. I work in vocational education, for a UK organisation that provides vocational qualifications across a whole range of fields and sectors. My area is mainly policy and advocacy, so although I can talk till the (holy) cows come home about a whole range of issues in education I hardly ever get to witness actual learning taking place or meet the learners who take our qualifications.

So it was great, while I was in London, to attend WorldSkills 2011 - an international competition that brought together young competitors from over 60 countries to demonstrate their abilities in skills ranging from landscape gardening to robotics. All of them are taking or have recently taken vocational qualifications, and all of them had won similar skills competitions at the national level in their own countries. Basically we are talking about some very impressive people with talent, brains and a serious work ethic.

The event was HUGE. It was the biggest event ever to be held at the Excel Centre in London, and if you've ever been there you will know that means it was massive. The logistics must have been a nightmare - the centre needed to have soil plots for the gardeners, an entire section of the exhibition with extra pipes for the plumbers, fully equipped kitchens for all the catering competitors, protective booths for the welders...I could go on. Kudos to the organisers for apparently making everything go like clockwork.

But of course the real draw was the competitors. Being someone with not a practical bone in his body, I have always been impressed by people with technical knowledge and skills. Someone who can look under the bonnet of a car and know how to make it run, or produce flawlessly designed and produced clothes, or understand exactly what building materials to use for a specific function and how, have abilities that are, to be frank, a bit of a mystery to me. Too often vocational education is dismissed, but the reality is that these skills are the result of years of hard work and dedication, and depend on an in-depth knowledge of the relevant field. 

The competitors at WorldSkills are the best of the best, and I defy anyone not to be impressed by their level of skills, or by their total concentration and dedication to their work as the crowds (including some very noisy school parties) milled past them with cameras flashing. It was a genuinely emotional experience and it reminded me that working in education means - however indirectly - helping people to achieve their dreams. There can't be many things as rewarding to do with your life.

Anyway, here are some photos of the event. Look out for the sugar sculptures made by the confectionary competitors...

Tiling, in case you were wondering!

I love the hungry gorilla....

...but the giraffe was my favourite.

The work of the Indian entrant in the hairdressing category

I never did find out how you got to volunteer to be the subject for the massage competition...

I found those fake hand things really quite creepy.

Welding! The photos didn't come out as impressive as it looked at the time.

Robotics. I'm not sure what the robot does but it looks terribly clever.

One of about 15 or so gardens that were created over a few days in the middle of the Excel centre. Brilliant.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Blogger Returneth

Ah yes, I remember now: coming back after your first visit back home is one of the trickiest points of any stint abroad. I'm neither one thing nor the other now: not full of wonder at the newness of it all, nor yet so at home that the sudden removal from more familiar environments doesn't cause those pangs of culture shock. What makes it really hard, though, is the plunge from a two-week social whirl back into the relative isolation of the single expat.

And this social whirl was particularly, er, whirly. This being England and the Netherlands, the majority of my catch-up with friends involved the pub; having come from India, which is not a big drinking society and which has eye-watering mark-ups on my favourite tipple (wine), my body was suddenly catapulted from happy near-teetotalism to something that was certainly well over my recommended intake of units.

Anyway, the result of all this frenetic activity (and the fact that only a week of my time away was actually holiday) is that I came back to Delhi feeling pretty knackered, which is not normally what one aims for after a holiday. Next time I think I'm going to hop on a plane to the Maldives.

Of course, I naturally now do the sensible thing and slow down the extra-curriculars for a little bit, right? Um, well, no, not exactly. After having had rather too much time on my hands for the last few months, I am now studying for a post-grad qualifcation in education, directing a short play, learning Hindi and (hopefully) fitting in the gym a couple of times a week. I've also just joined a local choir which I'm very happy about indeed. It took me a while to find one, but I was pleasantly surprised at the first rehearsal tonight to find that it's very healthy indeed: at least 80 members by my reckoning, and even a fairly healthy complement of tenors.

Fellow choristers will also empathise with my pleasure at the universal choral bickering that started pretty much as soon as the conductor had warmed us up:

"OK, from bar 27-"
"Wait, I think the tenors are singing the wrong note on "deo".
"What deo?"
"The deo after the "in excelsis".
"They all come after "in excelsis".
"Well, after that one."
"But the tenors don't have a deo there."
"Yes you do."
"No we don't. Look, we stop after "in excelsis."
"Well, you're singing the wrong note anyway."
"We're not singing anything!"
"Just be quiet and try to get it right."

And of course the eternal favourite:

"Can you please stop talking when the other sections are singing!" (repeat ad infinitum).

Ahh. Maybe it is starting to feel a little bit like home here after all.