Arriving in India
Catherine Leahy
Rajagiri School of Social Work, India
Valerie Hoogstad Scholar Award Recipient 2017

I confess I’ve been to India 5 times before, so in some ways I was prepared for the intergalactic difference that India represents compared to the Australian culture. However, Kerala is the tame version of India and a good entry point if you have not been before. Also, India is rapidly changing and in some ways, is vastly different to my first visit many years ago. Nevertheless, travelling always brings with it ups and downs and no matter how much research and prior preparation I do there is inevitably something that goes a bit awry. For me it was the visa process and then arriving during Onam. Onam is a Keralan festival and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the extent of the Onam celebrations (a week of scattered public holidays and university and college shutdowns). Then there is the Indian student Visa…… I’d spent 4 months trying to get the visa back in Oz but still managed to have the wrong one when I got to India. So back to  immigration  in Kerala for another round of forms, photos, questions and sitting around for hours playing with your mobile – this is thankfully a development that does make things in India a lot easier – smart phones.

My protracted efforts to get a visa meant that I arrived six weeks after the intended start date. And even then it was a rushed affair with visa (mark II) finally coming through on the Friday afternoon and me flying out on Monday morning. A rushed correspondence was sent to my host Indian institution but it was the weekend and so I didn’t expect to hear from them before I arrived. So I booked some accommodation for the first night in India. Then still no confirmation so I booked another 2 nights of accommodation. This was easily done and not really a problem for me. It gave me a chance to settle and get my bearings.  What wasn’t so easy was my bank blocking my debit card 24 hours after I arrived and refusing to deal with it online (via the free wifi at the hotel) instead, insisting that I phone their customer service line. I tried to call them reverse charge but couldn’t get through and I had insufficient credit on my new Indian sim to get through. I was tired and hungry so this didn’t go down too well. Eventually my partner had to call me, and then do a conference call to them so it could get sorted. A few hours later I got some cash! Having access to money really does help. 

Then I heard from my contact at the host institution and had my first meeting with them. As part of the Onam Festival all entrances to homes and buildings have floor designs  made of flower petals called flower carpets or Pookallum. This tired inattentive foreigner walked straight through the Pookallum before the meeting even began. My humiliation lasted some time, but not as long as Onam thankfully.​​​​​​​
 The jungle encroaches. A view from a cafe window in Fort Kochi