A friend suggested that I write a sort of personal newsletter to let people know what I've been up to, so here it is!
I started the year in India -- what a fascinating country!. It's difficult to describe in a few sentences. I spent 7 weeks working with Indians in Tamil Nadu (the southernmost state), introducing a way of cooking that uses less wood, and building a solar water heater for a school for handicapped children. That was organised through a very small charity in England called Salt of the Earth. It was a very interesting experience, and a very moving one being close to some of the poorest people on the planet. The rural Indians are very friendly -- and the women quite beautiful, although their status in society is really appalling.
On my return I wrote an article for Salt of the Earth's newsletter, Salt Seller. Here it is, following. (SCAD, Social Change and Development, is the organisation in India that SotE supports.)
During January and February of this year I worked at SCAD's centre in Cheranmahadevi. My charter was to see what fuel saving cooking methods could be introduced to the villages they serve. In order to try and understand the problems of the villagers I visited several of the villages, including those on the saltpans.
It was my first time in India, and this wasn't going to be on the normal tourist trail. I've been to third world countries before, but the sheer scale of the poverty was overwhelming. The appalling status of women, the target audience for my work, particularly affected me. This isn't the old-fashioned "a woman's place is in the home" type of attitude. Here a woman's place is in the home, in the fields, in the saltpans. She is wife, mother, housekeeper, cook, wood-collector, heavy manual labourer, general beast of burden. If she is not adding to the family income by carrying 25kg baskets of salt on her head in the saltpans, she is probably doing so by breaking up rocks for the roads. Thankfully this is an area that SCAD is working to change through education, health care, community development and the empowerment of women at the village level by the organisation of women's associations.
Rural poverty always appears less squalid than its urban cousin. At its most basic, at least the villager can use the fields for a toilet, not the street. Indeed, some of the villages can look charming and idyllic at a distance. On closer inspection this rustic dream view not so much fades as explodes in your face.
A couple in their hut
in Tamil Nadu
The situation is worst in the saltpans. There is no fresh water and the ground is saline. No kitchen vegetable gardens or village paddy field. Over 75% of household expenditure goes on food. Cooking fuel means a several mile walk for wood or an outlay on kerosene. A typical family of 5 to 7 people comprises of one or two grandparents, a husband and wife, and two to four children. Most extended families live in a small 3m x 2m one room windowless hut with interwoven palm-leaf walls and roof lashed over a stick frame. The hut is living room, kitchen and bedroom for all of them. There is no toilet or water. Their possessions mostly consist of one change of clothes and their cooking utensils.
My feelings in visiting these villages were very mixed. The austere existence of the villagers clashed within me with the personalities of the people themselves. We always received the warmest welcomes. They were very friendly, smiling and giggling, and with an enviable sense of community. We were garlanded and offered refreshments and often these poorest-of-the-poor would volunteer to share their food with us.
Food, by the way, for these people is rice and a thin curried sauce called sambhar. Three times a day. Cooked in the evening it is served hot after cooking and cold for breakfast and lunch the next day.
After having learnt about the lives of the villagers and their cooking habits it became apparent that the most culturally acceptable fuel saving cooking method would be old-fashioned hay boxes. This is basically a container insulated with hay into which a pot of boiling water and rice would be placed and allowed to cook in its own heat. As they were commonly available I ended up building these from jute sacks. These were introduced to a few trial villages by the staff at SCAD to strong initial interest. After trying the Hay Sacks for a week the villagers in the trial requested training sessions on building them, which SCAD supplied. When I left SCAD was planning on introducing the concept to all of the villages it serves.
Use of the Hay Sack lowers the number of fires used for cooking from two (one for the rice, one for the sambhar) to one, thereby reducing deforestation, time and labour spent on collecting fuel, and the health problems that accompany using open wood fires.
While at SCAD I also built a solar water heater to provide hot water for SCAD's school for 50+ delightful but handicapped (polio affected) children. While the bemused locals wanted to know if I could generate cold water for the 40+°C summers, the physiotherapists at the school wanted hot water to help the children's therapy.
One of the tigers I saw
After my time at SCAD I spent a couple of months touring India. It's such a huge country, with so many different peoples, languages and religions, that even though I covered thousands of kilometres I feel I only saw a small part of it. The southern state of Kerala is a real tropical paradise. And there are some delightful train and boat journeys to be made. The wildlife is great too. I rode several elephants, got blessed by two, and saw six tigers in the wild!
Unfortunately the Indians one meets in the tourist areas are only interested in your tourist dollars, but I got some relief from these and European tourists by staying with an Indian family in Jaipur "the Pink City".
I then returned to England for a few weeks before going to visit friends at my favourite-squat-in-the-world in Rome and others in Sicily. From there I flew to Malta where I spent four weeks on the University of Malta's archaeology summer school.
The course consisted of two weeks of lectures on Mediterranean and Maltese ancient history and archaeology, followed by two weeks of practical archaeology at the Tas-Silg site. The lectures covered periods from prehistoric to Byzantine. Most of the lectures were held at the archaeology centre on the university campus, but some were held during conducted visits to the island's many ancient sites.
The excavation site, Tas-Silg, is a multi-period site, ranging from structures from the prehistoric Maltese Temple Period (4000-2500BC) through a Punic (700-218BC) sanctuary and up to a Byzantine (535AD on) church, although the vast majority of finds were Punic. The summer school excavated three pits, extending and deepening areas worked on the previous year.
A Punic dish
A perfume bottle
A Hellenistic oil lamp
The area I was working in contained what was concluded to be a rubbish pit and provided a considerable amount of archaeological material. There were many sherds of Punic amphorae, oil lamps, plates and dishes -- some inscribed with letters signifying they were dedicated to the goddess Astarte. There was also considerable biological material, including bird bones (the dove is associated with Astarte), and various sea shells, including the type the Phoenicians used to manufacture their trade-mark purple dye.
The only complete pieces of pottery were excavated in our area, one by myself. These were small Punic dishes probably used for votive offerings.
Afternoons were spent at the university campus, washing the finds and performing flotation and sieving for the finer environmental materials.
The international members of the summer school stayed at the university residence in Lija. This is also a youth hostel so there was lots of opportunity to meet people in Malta for all sorts of reasons, and lots of parties!
This course earned me my first 3 credits (U.S. system) towards an archaeology degree. Not that getting a degree is a goal -- my interest is in outdoor archaeology!
After Malta I returned to Italy, spent another few days in Rome, and then went on to a couple of SCI workcamps.
Pitigliano is a picturesque medieval hill top village in the Etruscan part of southern Tuscany. The main purpose of the workcamp was to dig out some Etruscan tombs in a valley below Pitigliano. The tombs, dating from the 7th century BC, were raided by tomb looters about 40 years ago. The hillside has since slipped down filling and covering the tombs. So, this wasn't a proper archaeological excavation, but definitely involved lots of digging!
Some Etruscan tombs
we dug out
As the tombs had been looted we did not expect to find anything in them, although we did find a few sherds of Etruscan amphorae that the raiders had missed. However, it was exciting to see the tombs appear out of the hillside as we dug them out, and the group had a couple of midnight parties in the tombs to get the full atmosphere! In the last couple of days we also cleared the grounds of an abandoned monastery.
Staying in the local seminary, we found Pitigliano to be a quiet yet charming village. We went for walks, visited a local country fair, went for a dip in the nearby Roman hot springs at Saturnia, attended a local wine festival, and managed to go to a disco and a concert.
This was really the best workcamp I've been on, mostly due to the people of course.
After the Pitigliano workcamp I went back to Rome for a few days, along with a woman from the workcamp that I really liked. Then I went on to another SCI workcamp in the toe of Italy.
Pentidattilo is an old village in the Greek area of southern Italy, near Reggio di Calabria. The village is built in the palm of a mountain shaped like a hand, from which it takes its name "five fingers". The village was abandoned in the early '60s due to fears of the imminent collapse of the mountain. However, the mountain is still intact and various organizations are working to restore the village.
The workcamp dug out a part of the cistern of the medieval castle, dug out paths in the hillside, erected some fences, and staffed the village information centre ("Pro Loco"). We lived with constant water shortages, and suffered a European Commission film crew making a video of the project.
After that I went back to, yes, Rome for a few days and then onto Ljubljana, Slovenia for a workcamp taking two dozen Bosnian refugee children on holiday. This workcamp was hard work! Workcamps that involve manual labour are easier, at least you get to relax in the evenings. On this camp we were working all the time. Still, it was enjoyable and rewarding.
We started off in Ljubljana staying at a school for a few days, no kids, just the volunteers, learning about the refugee situation, the political situation, the war, etc., and planning activities for the holiday. We visited the two refugee camps the kids were coming from and saw a bit of Ljubljana.
Bosnian refugee children
Then we collected the kids (9-13 years old) in a bus and drove off to a tiny village, Svetinje, in the middle of Slovenia's wine making region, where we occupied the largest house. Six days of activities followed: games, mime, drawing, music, dance classes, basic language lessons, craft classes, etc., etc., etc. I was in the so- called drama group, were we did a lot of mime and I introduced some good old workcamp games like "machine" and "knots".
It was a very satisfying workcamp, although quite disorganised at times. The volunteers, mostly women, were a good set of people. We worked well together, although we didn't get to know each other as well as in most workcamps due to the constant need to pay attention to the kids. Still, everybody left feeling positive -- and exhausted -- and the kids had a great time.
Slovenia itself is quite a picturesque country. I knew better than to expect a bleak war-torn ex-communist state, but I was surprised by the level of affluence there. It looks and feels very similar to Austria, with that not-a-blade-of-grass-out-of-place look.
From September to November I was in Croatia for a three month voluntary position at a project called the Dunjak Shelter.
Dunjak is a really tiny village in the Krijina region of Croatia. This region is ethnically Serbian. It declared autonomy during the war, but a few months before the Dayton accord the Croatian army swept through the area and most of the Serbs left. Some have returned in the last year.
The shelter provides a home for about 20 old people who can't cope on their own, and is also a base for various humanitarian aid like distributing clothes and wood stoves and doing house repairs.
A destroyed house next to some abandoned,
The situation in the region is quite bad for a lot of people. It's a very rural area and most people are quite old. Their farms have been neglected for several years and their houses are generally in terrible condition. It's not so much the military caused destruction that's depressing. There's actually not too much of that and I've seen bombed buildings before, when I went with an aid convoy to Sarajevo last year.
The truly sickening part is that most of the destruction has been caused by "normal" people, rather than the armies. After the ethnic Serbs fled the area, the remaining locals looted the houses, often taking more or less everything, including doors, window frames, and frequently the roof! And good chance after that they'd burn the house out.
I spent a couple of months doing emergency repairs on houses in the area. Fitting glass in windows, sealing roofs with plastic, building doors, testing people's well water for contamination, etc. We even rebuilt the race (the funnel for the water) for a small water powered corn mill.
The project then got a grant from UNHCR to provide firewood to people in the area. I was put in charge of assessing who needed firewood and who already had enough. The major aid agencies (UNHCR, Red Cross, etc.) had given us lists of people who had recently returned to houses in the area.
We drove a couple of thousand kilometres, a lot over farm tracks, and assessed over 300 houses in a month. It was interesting to get a wide view of the condition of the people and houses in the area, and valuable work for people who depend upon wood as their only source of heat and cooking fuel during the harsh winters.
I now at mum's for Christmas, putting together videos and preparing for the next endeavour.
I'm off to Ghana for four months in January. I'll spend a month seeing if I can introduce some fuel saving cooking methods to the local women in the northeast of Ghana. Then I'll be spending three months on a Colobus Monkey survey! Three months of walking through the forests, counting monkeys and observing their habits while trying to avoid some of the larger wildlife! Sound like fun?
After that....no fixed plans yet, but June onwards I expect to be around continental Europe. I'd like to get back to Sarajevo for longer than the four hours I was there with the aid convoy. I'll try and find a workcamp or similar. Another proper archaeological excavation, of the sort I did in Malta this year, would be nice too.
And I'm sure I'll be back in my favourite European country, Italy. Rome too. I'll do some more SCI workcamps in Italy for sure.
I hope I'll bump into some of you during my travels!
Marios, December, '97