Belladonna Bess

An edible garden in Wellington, NZ

Going local November 18, 2014

Filed under: India,Travel — belladonnabess @ 2:40 am

My absorption into the Kerala culture began with a line in the Lonely Planet guide. “Wearing Indian-style clothes is viewed favourably…wearing a salwar kameez will help you blend in”. Since suitable clothing was proving hard to locate in Wellington, I discussed the idea of buying Indian clothes with some Indian friends in New Zealand. Nobody told me I was crazy, so I decided then that I’d take the bare minimum from New Zealand and go shopping on my arrival in Thrissur.

I googled Indian clothing and enquired about the possibility of shopping in Thrissur with my colleagues in India. Yes, this would be a good idea, and some PhD students from the Kerala Forest Research Institute would be able to take me.

And so, the day after arrival, I found myself dazzled by every colour I could have possibly imagined, all together, all at once. After years of searching for bursts of brightness in Wellington’s black-stocked clothing shops, I had finally found a place equal to my colour sense. I didn’t know where to start.

I had one requirement – it must be cotton. Locals are acclimatised to wearing long-sleeved synthetic tops and trousers in a humid 33oC, but I am not. This narrowed my search to maybe half the shop, and still every imaginable colour combination. So I collected a random selection and began trying things.

Now my obliging colleagues began to show me how the clothing worked. With the churidar, the full skirt, the trousers are tight. I wanted the loose trousers – the salwar – for comfort, so that meant matching with a kurti – a straighter, long shirt. The scarf or dupatta must always match the trousers, and will often contrast with the kurti but will also connect in some way.

I left the first shop with a pink salwar and dupatta and two kurti, one bright green with pink trim, one a bold black and white botanical pattern with pink, orange and green trim. The second shop I left with a bright orange kurti, which had a woven pattern in blue, purple and jade. It matched with jade salwar and dupatta. I also had a more toned-down churidar with a black base, but lots of pattern in red, green and yellow. On a further shopping trip I acquired a an unbleached cotton kurti with a lime and dark-green botanical pattern, and matching lime salwar and dupatta. I was getting the hang of things.


Even the local insects share my dress sense.

I resisted the efforts of a sales assistant to sell me eye-liner, but found some lime and pink earrings to complete one of my outfits. In the collection of earrings I had brought from New Zealand, I found one pair in orange and jade, and one in lime and dark green. Perfect.

The clothing was just the start. I still had to cope with the food. For my first Kerala meal, I joined a number of colleagues in the hotel restaurant. I was feeling paranoid. Travel guides, the travel doctor and New Zealand friends had all shared alarming stories of the hazards of eating in India. I was warned that I would suffer for the first few days, just from the dietary adjustment, even if I didn’t catch any bugs. I couldn’t count the number of people who told me to pack Imodium. And I couldn’t lie in my hotel and suffer. I had to stand in front of a room of people and teach.

I peered at the hotel buffet with concern. There was hot rice, a reasonably safe bet. The vegetarian curries were also kept hot, and there was hot soup. Chapati – probably ok too. Salads – on my list of things to avoid. Tasty looking chutneys made fresh from raw coconut and other ingredients I couldn’t identify, probably not. Sweet hot milky desserts – not sure. So at that first meal I ate vegetarian curries and rice, and after finding the first few mouthfuls rather hot with chilli, I began to adjust. They tasted good anyway. I was offered some dessert and decided to eat that too.

As I ate, I realised I was eating with a fork while my local colleagues had put their forks down after a couple of mouthfuls. Of course, you don’t eat Indian food with forks or spoons. I put down my fork and began a rather clumsy effort at eating my lunch. I’ve had a bit of practice at eating with my fingers when I have chapati, but with just rice, I was struggling. I was assured I could use a fork if I wanted to. I assured them that I was fine, I just needed the practice.

That was the last time I touched a fork during my visit.

The promised discomfort and diarrhoea failed to materialise. After the next meal, where I also ate some meat, it equally failed to appear. After eating idli, sambar (a dal and vegetble curry) and dhosa for breakfast, I was fine. I tried some of the fresh coconut chutney – the restaurant seemed clean and I thought it was probably freshly made. No problem. I drank tea in tea shops and ate some random cake-like things. Fine.

Meal after delicious meal, I became slightly less concerned. In a stunning hotel in the mountains, I was served a number of cold dishes, with pineapple, coconut, curd, cut fruit and fruit juice. I decided to trust this place and ate everything in front of me. Delicious, and no problem. I began to worry about weight gain more than diarrhoea.

During the training course, the food was supplied by the Kerala Forest Research Institute. It was delicious, and I was assured they were very clean. I ate everything in front of me, including fresh fruit salad and icecream. My colleagues stopped offering cutlery and starting putting new dishes in front of me to try.

I thanked them using one of my few Malayalam phrases – nani.

I was still a foreign visitor and a visiting expert, but I found that people began to talk more with me, to become more comfortable. Partly it was the training – the interactive exercises made it difficult for people to stay silent. But maybe it was also because I was being gently absorbed into some aspects of the Keralan culture, and finding it a very comfortable place indeed.


Invasive species management training in India November 14, 2014

There was a moment, after the introductions and just under an hour into the training session, when I thought that I could fail competely. I was looking at a room full of confused, even stunned, faces. I was standing in front of them, talking – doing what lecturers and experts and foreign consultants sent by international agencies usually do. I’m not sure that they could hear me properly or understand my accent, but nobody said so. So far, all was normal.


And then I told them that they were the ones who knew the answers, not me. I made an attempt to direct them into groups, handed them a list of questions with a flip chart and pen for each group and then… confused faces. I know it was partly my kiwi accent, but it was also because I was trying something very different.


I am here in Kerala as part of a larger project funded by the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) to improve the capability of several Asian countries to manage invasive species. My part in this project is to train people in South India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka on how to manage established invasive species, especially weeds. In some ways this is very familiar ground to me, I’ve done plenty of invasive species management and training, and while my tropical botany is a bit rusty, in a few days here it was all coming back. But I’ve never been to India – or any of these countries – before. The idea of arriving in a strange country to tell them what to do feels entirely foreign. In fact, I have written previously about why foreign consultants and international agencies with generic solutions often do more harm than good. I don’t want to be a part of that problem.


This is why I have told my group of trainees that they need to bring their knowledge to the training. I can give them some ideas and tools and show them ways to make better decisions, but their local expertise is essential. So I walk around each group and try to explain why I want them to do. When my accent confuses them, Dr Sankaran, a retired scientist who is leading this project (and who doesn’t know the meaning of “retired”), explains for me.


I walk around the room a little nervously, and watch. They are reading my questions. They are talking to eachother, discussing the questions. I wander by and the groups are writing their answers. They look interested. Not confused. When I ask for volunteers to report back on what they discussed, there is no hesitation.


I relax just a little. I think this is going to be okay.

(Photo of me during the training. I’d love to post pictures of the students really getting into their discussions but I would need to get permission.)

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Me, gone local.