This interview was taken from Thinking Nomads. Click here to read the article.
When the going got tough, the Whittles got going…to India. Knocked sideways by recession. Geoff and Cherrie Whittle decide on a radical change of direction… and set off for India with their two children…to save the tiger!
Geoff and Cherie have written a book about their time in India, aptly named ‘No Worry, Chicken Curry’ which is a collection of anecdotal incidents and events that chart the family’s time in the sub-continent. ‘No Worry, Chicken Curry’ is a story of today, with insights for all times, including the trials and tribulations of dealing with bureaucracy, climate, survival and two adolescent kids in a story of strength through adversity.
1. How did the idea come about to go India and save the tigers?
A downturn in our business fortunes coupled with an overriding desire to do something radical and adventurous rather than simply continue to repeat the predictable cycle of life in Britain.
2. What was your biggest fear before leaving?
Geoff: I didn’t really have any fears as the move seemed to present nothing but opportunities – a little naïve perhaps but it provided the commitment and impetus to break away from all that we knew.
Cherrie: My biggest fears were leaving my family in England – when would I see them again. How would it affect the boys. How would we educate them. Where, when would we find a place to live
3. What were your family and friends reactions when you told them about your plans, and how did you deal with any negative reactions?
Family were generally supportive and didn’t put any obstacles in our way. Friends were more vocal and less supportive, telling me (Geoff) to consider the kid’s future and Cherrie’s feelings (as if this hadn’t crossed my mind anyway). One friend was particularly obstructive and has never really reconciled himself to our move to this day and we see very little of him. Dealing with this was difficult as we already had many conflicting emotions within the family to deal with without outside influences – my reaction ultimately was one of determination (perhaps stubbornness) to see the adventure through
Cherrie: My mother was very upset especially when we were selling everything in a garage sale. She became more reconciled once we found a Christian school for the boys.
4. In the first few months you were in India what were the three biggest obstacles you had to overcome with regards to living and working there.
Intransigence, apathy and obstruction on the part of the Indian authorities; difficulty in occupying, educating and placating the boys during long months in Delhi; living in the mayhem of the most Spartan, noisy and dirty environment of Pahar Ganj – the ‘Main Bazaar’ of Delhi.
Cherrie- learning to live in one bedroom which slept all four of us, finding ways to encourage the boys to eat proper food when I could find it. Entertaining the boys on long journeys keeping the peace between everyone, and always trying to be positive no matter how I felt.
5. What was your best experience/moment during your time in India?
Being completely alone as a family in the depths of the jungle, trusted as valuable contributors to the efforts of the Forest Department, with free rein to travel/explore/report throughout its 1,000sq.Km range of pristine and stunning landscapes
Cherrie: Best times were times spent in the jungle, the excitement of seeing and hearing wild animals, all four of us learning to drive through the steep, broken and overgrown roads of the jungle. The reward of being able to help some of the tribal children and women folk within the national park.
6. What was your worst experience/moment during your time in India?
Leaving our kids in Boarding School; having promised them that we would never do so. Other than that, actually leaving the country was a huge disappointment.
Cherrie: sending our kids to school but also some of the long days spent shut in during the monsoons not ever really being dry, warm or comfortable. Trying to find places to go to the toilet!
7. Undertaking this adventure with two adolescent boys can’t have been easy. What were the three biggest challenges you faced in trying to get the boys to adjust to your new life and what did you do to overcome them?
It was almost impossible to explain why we were chosing to leave UK but to some extent the boys were resigned to being with their parents (as would any young child) Olly was less enthusiastic as he’s started to forge more of an individual life of paper-round, girlfriend etc.
Once in India, trying to encourage enthusiasm for our ‘adventure’ was extremely difficult during the early months of official meetings and confinement in Delhi with no exposure to the jungle and animlas that we’d promised. Later, the constant travel of our first year, whilst fascinating, took a toll on all of us in terms of having no fixed base to call ‘home’ – so barren hotel rooms, unpredictable diet and hygiene all served to drain us of energy and enthusiasm for our pursuit. Only when we found Pachmarhi did our resilience return.
In order to overcome these trials en route we attempted to set the boys tasks, which whilst educational in nature, nevertheless gave them a deeper understanding of the places we visited – so they would be asked to write stories revolving around the history of the many fascinating destinations we found ourselves in – from the Taj Mahal to the foothills of the Himalayas. Whenever possible we would spend time in the jungles of India to expose them, and ourselves, to the environment we ultimately wished to base ourselves within.
Cherrie: I have to say in some ways the boys were more resilient that I was and they always seemed to find friends and ways to entertain themselves wherever we were. But I was always worried that we would sit round a table one day and that they would say that they’d never forgive us for what we did to them, (as a friend had done once about his parents during a dinner party), but fortunately they haven’t done so – so far!
8. For people who want to follow in your footsteps and go after their dreams,have an adventure or even a career change. What three bits of advice would you give them?
DO IT! You’ll always find hundreds of reasons not to and many fewer why you should – listen to why you should – because even if you ultimately regret having done so, you’ll never have to live with the thought that you should have done.
You probably have less time left on earth than you think – so do it now!
The World is changing so quickly and the opportunities to do the more radical or adventurous pursuits are forever being curtailed/controlled and legislated against. The longer you delay the more clinical an experience you’ll have. (The freedoms we enjoyed in India have already disappeared the environment continues to be decimated, the wildlife increasingly under threat – whilst in the jungle for a purpose we were nevertheless privileged to be there when we were)
Cherrie: Yes I would probably say do it, but if possible try to keep somewhere as a bolt hole in England
9. Although your not in India now what have you taken from the experience that you apply to your life now?
A knowledge that above all I value the closeness and companionship between the four of us as a family that is borne out of shared experiences and having learned so much about one another – most especially that we can be together through adversity and survive. If this prevails it is worth more than any material gain.
Cherrie: Most important of all is our family but also not being so materialistic and being far more aware of the environment
10. How did the name of the book come about?
A chirpy rickshaw driver used it as his stock phrase whenever we berated him for attempting to take us to his relations’ shops or on tours we did not want to go on as we were not tourists for the taking. It stuck as a phrase for us to use whenever the going became particularly arduous.
11. What are you doing now?
Back into our own business development/design/marketing ventures (as well as being guest speakers about all things Indian and conservation at various venues including on board cruise ships) but with much more of a focus on quality of life rather than a quest for profit.
12. Do you have any more big adventures planned or a return trip to India?
We maintain contact with India, continue to run charitable activities where we were based in the heart of the country and have taken groups of individuals/supporters around many of the landmarks we spent time in. We’ll always have an affinity with India but that’s not to say that if the opportunity arises for a totally different kind of adventure that we won’t pursue it – we always have our eyes open!
Cherrie: Not at present but it is very difficult to adjust to becoming one of the many office workers after the life that we led during our time in India. So we are always coming up with ‘our next plan’ but as yet nothing has made us leave
13. How can people help or donate to the charities you set up.
The simplest way to help the work we do is to go onto our website www.chicken-curry.org and click on the LifeForce or patchwork Kids logos at the bottom of the page.
14. After 7 years of living in India you must be pretty expert on all things “Indian”? Quick fire questions just a quick short answers. (please indicate if different for both of you)
a) Best dish you’ve eaten in India? G – Jungle-chicken roasted over an open fire in the depths of the forest in a Tribal village at night.
Cherrie: Some of the meals cooked whilst we were traveling through the forest – cooked and eaten around the fire, no lights, only the jungle noises around us
b) Worst dish/or food you’ve eaten in India? G – An unidentifiable lukewarm semi-transparent ‘splodge’ of entrails/brains in a remote village in Balpakram National Park in Meghalaya when we were starving hungry.
Cherrie – some of the sweets which were force fed to us whenever we visited a family in their home. If we hesitated they would literally push it into our mouths
c) Most exotic food you’ve eaten? G – probably the above – although I don’t know what it was!
Cherrie I can’t say that I thought anything was exotic – different but not exotic
d) Most memorable place? G – The tropical rain forest of Balpakram overlooking the Gangetic plains of Bangladesh
Cherrie – Satpura National Park – driving through the park when you knew you were the only vehicle in the area, and the occasional skinny dip in the river as we drove through at night.
e) Most memorable person? G – Fatesingh Rathore – the dedicated and disillusioned, much maligned and persecuted ex-Director of Ranthambore National Park. Cherrie: Father Pandyan a completely whacky, unscrupulous vicar; our first landlord when we were in Pachmarhi
f) Best form of transport to get around India? G- Train – Second Class Sleeper – where you meet India face-to-face.
Cherrie: Our jeep which drove us safely for thousands of miles.
g) Best National Park to visit ? G – Satpura for pristine jungle, Kanha for the chance of tiger, Bandhavgarh for guaranteed tiger but tourist mayhem. Cherrie as above
h) Best City? G – Benares (Varanasi) for the colour, culture and chaos of India. Cherrie – Bhopal as it was always a relief to have a little bit of luxury
i) Best Beach? G – we spent time in Kovalam but beaches weren’t our mission and I don’t think they’re India’s strong point.
Cherrie – Kovalum as it was the only beach we went to
j) If you could go back to India where would you go back to? G – Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh – it holds millions of memories
Cherrie – we were talking to the lads recently and we all said we would love to go back to Pachmarhi together and remind ourselves just how we lived there.