Cyclone Winston and Vanua Balavu – Documentary Teaser

For those of you wondering where all the video footage from Fiji is, here’s the deal;

Whilst on Vanua Balavu, as well as teaching, I spent a lot of time filming the area and the effects of Cyclone Winston. I interviewed members of the community about their experiences on the night the cyclone hit and their concerns for the future. I documented daily life amongst the slowly improving destruction.

I ended up with a lot of footage. The plan is to eventually edit this in to a short documentary which will tell the story of the island, how it was effected by the storm and how its people are attempting to move on.

But, for now, I’ve thrown together this informal teaser for you to get a sense of what life on the island is like at the moment.

KERALA 2016

Finally found good enough internet to upload my edit of our 2 months in Kerala, plus a small detour into Tamil Nadu to visit Ooty. Such amazing memories of a very special and unique place.

Festivals in Wayanad

During our stay at RASTA we spent a few evenings checking out local festivals. The first of which was a Christian festival at Pallikunnu Church.

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We were warned that it would be busy. We attended the festival on the culmination of 5 days of celebrating. As our tuk-tuk got closer the road began to be filled with vehicles parked either side and people walking toward the church. We were dropped off about half a mile from the building. The road was lined with small stalls and shops, palm readers, tea shops and jewellery sellers.

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There was a big parade along the road with drummers, dancers and two giant elephants. There was also a huge queue of people holding candles, slowly nearing the church. They were queuing to enter the church and place their candles. There were massive crowds and bright, flashing lights all over the front of the building. What was really interesting was that there were many hindus among the crowd, all enjoying the spectacle. It was great being part of the hustle and bustle. We realised that these festivals are part of the whole community and the whole culture of Kerala.

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One of the first things we decided we had to see when we began reading about Kerala was theyyam. It is a ritualistic performance which takes place at some hindu festivals, but for the hindus, it is far from theatrical. They believe that the performers, wearing big costumes and elaborate make-up, dance themselves into a trance and then become possessed by on of their Gods. They then become an oracle and give people advice and counsel.

We had read that Wayanad was the area where much of this art form takes place. Theyyam is notoriously hard to find, mainly taking place in rural temples late at night. Omana and Danesh, having worked with these communities a lot, seemed like the perfect people to get advice from. Finally, a couple of nights before we were scheduled to leave, Omana said there would be a form of theyyam taking place at a temple near by.

A jeep was arranged and we travelled with Omana, Danesh and some of the other volunteers deep into the forests. After driving for about an hour, our driver stopped, the road had become too steep and too uneven for the jeep to take. We began to walk. It was about 6pm and the sun was setting. We reached the crest of the hill and saw a very basic temple which consisted of fenced in shrines. We were greeted by the temple guards.

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After some discussion we were told that, in fact, the main event was taking place tomorrow. The area was beautiful and peaceful, we were actually pleased to get the chance to see it when it was empty. As the sun set in the west, you could spin around 180° and see the deep orange full moon rising in the east. It was spectacular.

The bright, bright moon

The bright, bright Moon

The festival guards were extremely kind and welcoming. We were served tea and snacks. We paid for a puja (prayer) and got to light a candle. The temple is situated on a very ancient and sacred site. About 10 years ago the community grouped together to clear the land of some of the trees and build the small temple. It is now owned and run by 80 families. The area is still used by the local tribal people also, whose ancestors have been worshipping here for thousands of years. We were shown broken pieces of clay that were found when the land was re-worked, they said they didn’t know how old they were. One of them had a very clear shape of a human nose on it with two nostrils and one seemed to be the shape of a human body, perhaps it was a doll.

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At about 8pm we began to hear drumming in the distance. All the families were arriving in a procession. The head of the local tribe was brought forward, clothed in a red robe, his head covered by a red cloth. He began to go into a trance. We were told that he had been fasting for days. He began dancing and chanting. There was a metal sword which he held and waved. He then ran down the hill to greet the procession.

The parade entered the temple and circled the shrine, the women holding candles, the drummers and dancers. The tribal people kept to themselves and took their place in their special corner where they are permitted to do as they wish. They had their own drummers who slowly walked in a small circle, bouncing to their own beat.

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There were also dancers who had big glittery things on their heads, similar to the cone-shaped ones we had seen at the Murugan festival. They stood in a line and danced in time to the drums. One dancer was quite close to us and the crowd we were standing in. Toward the end of the synchronised dance the men began spinning with their head dresses. Their speed was increasing. Suddenly the dancer let out a mighty scream as he whipped his head dress down and around in a circle, the weight of it giving him momentum. If the crowd hadn’t quickly moved he would have definitely knocked a few people out!

Massive Cooking Pot

Massive Cooking Pot

Then dinner was served. The cooks and servers are all volunteers from the families. They cook in massive pots to make sure there is enough for everyone. We were given a delicious dinner of rice and vegetarian curries with sweet payasam for dessert. The food is served in a buffet style and then everyone takes a seat on the dimly lit hillside to eat. This was a great experience, we felt very welcomed, as always.

The next evening we had planned to go to a tribal festival that was happening near RASTA. We headed over there with the plan to return to the Hindu festival at Tharayam Kunnu temple later for the theyyam. The tribal festival was taking place in an area where 50 tribal families live as a community. There was a temple with various shrines and a courtyard circled by a ring of houses.

The ground had been spread with thick brown clay which had hardened. The hedges and stairways had then been painted, using mud from the third layer of a paddy field, with white stripes. This created a very atmospheric pattern. As well as a decoration, this also helps the bumps of the land and the staircases to be seen more easily in the dark.

They were setting off gun powder pujas on the ground which created extremely loud bangs. All of the candles were being lit and they were preparing for through-the-night festivities. We were given some sweet tea by the granddaughter of the head of the tribe. She was studying to become a doctor and had returned briefly to her tribal home for the festival. It was incredible seeing how the community lived together, the children all playing and the women and men communing with each other. I spoke to the granddaughter who explained that she felt like ‘nuclear family living’ promoted loneliness which is not present in community living. I can see why she thinks this and I feel like she may be right, although it did seem a little over-whelming. As someone who likes their own space, I feel like I’d perhaps enjoy something between the two.

We left the tribe to their celebrations, keen to see the theyyam. It was now just the four of us, Omana, Danesh, Joseff and me. We are so grateful to Omana and Danesh for not only finding out about the festivals but accompanying us there also. We arrived just in time for dinner. We were greeted by people from yesterday who were happy to see us, Danesh explained that they feel privileged to have foreign guests. We ate on the dark hillside once again, with everyone around us.

The full moon was high in the sky. After eating, everyone gathered in the temple’s grounds to watch the first theyyam. The tribal drummers and pipe player made their music in their corner. The special pipe is a very ancient instrument and very few people still play it. The other drummers began playing and a man with a very large and elaborate red costume entered. His face was painted orange.

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He was in a trance, bouncing about to the beat of the drums. Two men lightly held his arms to guide him. After a while his eyes opened and they let go, he was now possessed by the God. He began to move around the temple, his movements were odd and erratic, his eyes would widen at random points. He began to guide the drummers, dictating the rhythm he desired. He blessed the shrines and inspected the temple. He would dance and sometimes scream. He would walk around the crowds and bless each person. This continued for about half an hour, it was mesmerising. His movements and the drumming intensified towards the end. He beckoned for a chair and sat down. The ritual was over.

The temple guards approached him and he spoke to them. He was advising them what changes should be made to the temple to keep him (the God) happy. Then a crowd of people gathered around to receive their own advice from the God. It was really, really hard to get our head around the fact that these people believed they were speaking to one of their Gods through another human. I think it shows how Hindus views their Gods differently to Christians. Rather than one, they have many Gods whose personalities vary and they are more accessible and tangible.

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It was now around midnight and we were getting tired. Fortunately, we were given some sweet coffee and snacks. Fried ghee and sugar, pure energy!

After a short break, the people gathered once more for the second ritual of the night. The temple guards had made a small fire in the middle of the grounds which had now died down to glowing embers.

The second man entered, wearing a white lungi. He had white paint markings all over his body. He also had a mask-like thing on half of his face which made his mouth look bigger. He was being lead by two of the tribal men, one of them was the leader from last night. They took him by each arm as he ran around the temple. The drumming was louder and faster than with the previous ritual.

They ran through the embers, scattering them everywhere. They sprinted back and forth through the hot coals. They had gathered speed and momentum. The head of the tribe suddenly fell to the floor and fainted. The man possessed by the God continued to run around as others went to help the tribal leader. He awoke and rose to the floor. He sat and watched the rest of the ritual.

The white lungi was covered by a black cloth. Then people from the crowd began handing the God cups made out of leaves filled with a black paste; coconut oil mixed with soot. He then rubbed the paste into his stomach, you could see that he was slowly turning increasingly black. He was a cheeky God and began to tease the crowd by trying to get the black mixture on them. He wiped it onto people’s foreheads and faces.

He ran over to the tribal area and they all began dancing and cheering. The women dance in a very specific way. They slowly and rigidly bounce in time. Holding one hand up and turning round. We were told that this dance is specific to this small tribe.

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Just like the other tribal festival, they had gun powder pujas here also. You could pay to have one set off for you, similar to lighting a candle. They were setting them off a little way down the hill, away from the temple and the crowds. However, after much gesturing the God got the men to set one off in the temple. They laid out a line of black gun powder ending with an upside down metal cup. They lit it with a long stick which was ablaze at the end. The crowd backed away. Bang! You could feel your whole body shake with the explosion.

This ritual went on for about an hour before the God sat down and began to give advice. It was now 2am and we were exhausted. We decided to head back. We could hear the explosive pujas echoing into the night as we drove home. It hand been an overwhelming experience and I could hardly process what we had seen. It made me realise the extent of the diverse and wonderful rituals tiny sections of humanity hold. It was unbelievable.

RASTA

We have just spent two and a half weeks volunteering at the NGO RASTA (The Rural Agency for Social and Technological Advancement) in Wayanad. It has been a rewarding, fun and difficult experience all at once.

We arrived on Sunday to find the office closed and no one to check us in. Fortunately, there were some kind volunteers there who showed us round and told us how things work. The next day we met with the Director, Omana.

We quickly realised that this small, rural place was in trouble. Omana explained that RASTA was set up by herself and her husband Danesh in the 1980’s. At its best it had 40 employees and ran many projects to help the marginalised people of Wayanad, mainly tribal people. Omana was once nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize along with 1,000 other women for her work. However, in recent years, funding has been cut so much that there are now only 6 permanent employees at RASTA; Omana and Danesh, Suresh in the office, Devaki the cook and cleaner, Sheeba the Women’s Officer and Nadiyallah a Solar Engineer.

RASTA

Omana explained that funding decreased due to the progress in Kerala and the rise of the literacy rate to 97%, but, in fact, these statistics are misleading. Defining ‘literate’ is a very ambiguous task. In Wayand many of the rural and tribal communities are not literate at all and are very poor.

RASTA’s main projects include mobilising women’s groups to gather, help each other and to solve problems in the community. They teach skills to women such as clay jewellery making and help them sell their wares. They encourage organic farming and help small farmers effectively cultivate their land. They also installed solar panels into 160 tribal homes, which had no previous access to electricity, giving them two lights per household. RASTA paid for Nadiyllah to get formal training in Deli in order for the panels to be maintained. These projects are still running, but the main focus of RASTA at the moment is to generate money for itself.

Omana, Danesh and Suresh are spread too thinly, use ancient computers, are not up-to-date on their digital skills and their English, especially when written, is far from fluent.

There is no one to organise the volunteers or tell them what work there is to do. This leaves many feeling lost, confused or disappointed. Fortunately, there were two young couples there when we arrived who were very pro-active and helped us realise that you need to work out how you can help RASTA and get on with it! So, Joseff and I decided to help improve and promote the Eco-Tourism of RASTA, in the hope of increasing income.

Rural Wayanad

When we arrived, the website page dedicated to tourists spoke a lot about volunteering, perhaps turning any potential tourists off. We worked on updating this webpage, the Airbnb listings, Google Maps, Trip Advisor etc. in order to encourage tourists to book, often re-writing a lot of text. I also made a video showcasing Devaki’s Kitchen Guesthouse (the name of the accommodation). In addition, we worked on improving the situation for tourists once they have arrived by creating a tourist brochure with information and possible activities in the area.

We were mainly working in the office so got to know the staff well. Omana is a smiley and glowing woman, she has a contagious laugh and is brilliantly outrageous in a small, old, Indian woman way. We fell in love with her. They are all truly lovely people. Joseff would help Omana a lot with her emails and any technical problems she had. She even trusted him with the office key so we could have wifi after hours!

Lunch!

Joseff also took over the work of a volunteer who left, setting up RASTA with Google for non-profits. This allows an NGO to get Google Adwords, with $10,000 a month to spend on advertising, and other benefits of Google forBusiness for free. This meant that they could now have their own domain email which looks more professional. As you can imagine this took a lot of time to set-up and then a lot of work to migrate emails etc. over to the new system!

Barefoot College is a very large NGO which helped RASTA set-up and also helped to fund the solar panel project. We were lucky enough to be present when two representatives from Barefoot College came for a visit to see how the solar project was going, now that the panels had been installed for around a year. We were very excited to hear that there was also a person from Apple coming as they support the Barefoot College as part of their corporate social responsibility. It was great to see RASTA being viewed by such important people, they were very impressed. Of course, they were won over by Omana’s charm. I think that the visit may lead to a renewed partnership between RASTA and the Barefoot College which is great.

Hibiscus Flower

Making the video was an interesting task. It’s basically an advert, something I haven’t had much experience in before. I decided to keep it simple and to focus on the unique benefits of staying at Devaki’s Kitchen Guesthouse. Omana was great at organising and getting things looking good for filming. She even stepped in as an ayurvedic masseur and pretended to massage me as Joseff filmed! A hilarious situation.

As part of the filming I also got to go out into the field with Nadiyallah and Sheeba to see some of the tribal solar houses. These individual and simple houses were extremely remote. We walked up the bumpy and dusty path to reach each one. The people all seemed to be pleased with their lights.

We came across one woman who invited us into her home for tea. She had two small children. We spoke for a little bit, her English was quite good. She explained that she was in fact from the neighbouring state Tamil Nadu and only spoke Tamil rather than Malayalam. In traditional Indian society, when a woman gets married, she is obliged to move to her husband’s home. The house was isolated and I asked her if she had any friends in the area, she explained that all the local women were older and spoke Malayalam so she couldn’t really communicate with them. She was only 24. I found this hard to hear. Although it seemed like a peaceful and idyllic life, nestled in the heart of the jungle, it also seemed hard and isolating, especially in this case.

I also worked on improving the experience for volunteers. We set-up a Volunteer Log where volunteers could document the work they completed at RASTA. We did this because after finding various documents, saved in random places on computers, we realised that we were repeating some work that had already been done by other volunteers. So, the Volunteer Log is now accessible through the new shared Google Drive to stop this happening! I also wrote a 5 page volunteer information notice which was stuck up in the dormitories and the dining hall, with all the information we felt we needed on arrival.

Once we got over the initial shock of the individual and sometimes bizarre world that is RASTA, we really enjoyed our time there. We met some awesome volunteers and became great friends with Omana, Suresh and Danesh.

On our final night we were invited to Omana and Danesh’s house for dinner. Tea and banana chips replaced alcohol and appetisers. The food was delicious. We were truly humbled to get the opportunity to work with people who have dedicated their whole lives to people less fortunate and who continue to work everyday in the face of adversity. We wish all the best for RASTA and we hope we have helped in a small way.

You can see the webpage we worked on and the video here.

Uravu Bamboo Grove

Our next stop in Wayanad was staying in a beautiful and cosy Bamboo Cabin at Uravu Bamboo Grove. Uravu is a social enterprise which focuses on using natural resources. They employ local people, training them in creating bamboo products to sell. One of Uravu’s latest ventures is the Uravu Bamboo Grove where we stayed. It’s a very remote area with stunning views and a charming village life style.

The cabins are all eco-friendly, running on solar energy. We were able to take part in eco-tourism activities such as a village walk where we were taken on a guided walk around the rural village.

The biggest industry in the lush region of Wayanad is farming. Everyone uses small gardens or patches of land to grow crops for selling. We were able to see pineapples growing, rubber plantations, rice paddy fields, coffee plantations and pepper plants which grow by winding up trees. Our guide cut open a round, hard fruit and white liquid began pouring out, he explained that it is used to make chewing gum. We saw fresh nutmeg which has red string-like bands across the seed, also used in cooking. We were able to taste allspice leaves and cardamom leaves and many other fruits and plants which we had never heard of.

Pineapple

Pineapple

Red Flower

Red Flower

Rubber Trees

Rubber Trees

Pepper

Pepper

Pink Spotted Leaves

Pink Spotted Leaves

Fresh Nutmeg

Fresh Nutmeg

We learned a lot about the resourcefulness of this region and how nature can provide us with so much. Hibiscus flowers are used to help purify boiled water. Natural loofers can be found on plants. Sticky plants can be used to make children’s toys like temporary jewellery and bubble blowers. Jackfruits, bananas and coconuts can be cut from trees, at any time of the season, and cooked in various ways.

Coffee

Coffee Plant

Coffee Pom Pom Flowers

Coffee Pom Pom Flowers

I was obsessed with them!

I was obsessed with them!

We could see how the tour supported the community as we were taken to a local tea shop for chai and tried some deliciously sweet halwa. We were also taken to a wooden elephant maker’s house where we could watch him work and purchase his creations. Later, we went to a local’s house for a delicious and varied lunch, served traditionally on a banana leaf. It included jackfruit seed curry, a sweet rice-pudding like dessert and some segments from the biggest grapefruit I’ve ever seen, much of it grown in the host’s garden.

Lunch

Lunch

This was from a massive Grapefruit

This was from a massive Grapefruit

Varnishing

Varnishing

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

The following day we went on a guided hike up Chembra Peak which is 2050m above sea level, although it is not possible to climb to the top without special permission. However, the three hour trek was quite difficult and steep. Our guide kept asking to take my camera to take photos of us. It became quite comedic as he began telling us how to pose. He didn’t quite understand why I wanted to take some photos of just the landscape.

#pose

#pose

Mountain Views

Mountain Views

We reached the small heart-shaped lake at the summit of our walk, it was kind of heart-shaped anyway. The views across the mountainous plateau of Wayanad were stunning. It’s green and peaceful here and we are very much enjoying discovering this unfamiliar climate.

Tea Plantations on Chembra Peak

Tea Plantations on Chembra Peak

Sideways Heart-Shaped Lake

Sideways Heart-Shaped Lake

Chembra Peak

Chembra Peak Views