Friday, October 14, 2011

End of the road

My year-long adventure in India has come to an end. I'm writing this from Malaysia having left India from Chennai on Monday. I'm having a short, one week, mini-holiday in Malaysia and Singapore, then it's back to the UK at the beginning of next week.

It's easy to get really sentimental and “let's put my year in perspective” when you reach the end of a journey like this. But that's not really my style.....instead I'm going to write about the last festival I got to see before leaving India.

First, a small bit of background. India is a huge country (I was 400km from Kolkata, 1000km from Delhi. Delhi is 1000km from Kerala in the get the idea!) and more like a continent than a country. This means that a massive holiday in one part of the country can be completely ignored in another state. My state (Jharkhand) is mainly a Hindi state, but for various reasons it still celebrates the Bengali festival of Durga Pooja.

The Durga Pooja story is your basic hero / damsel in distress / villain story. Guy meets girl. Other guy wants girl. Other guy steals girl. 1st guy kills 2nd guy, wins back girl. Or something like that. For once, the story really isn't that relevent.

Durga Pooja is a huge deal in Bengali communities. Imagine combining Christmas, New Year's Eve and the Royal Wedding into the space of 3 days and you get somewhere close. There are 10 days of festivities, three days of official public holidays (although with the last one being Thursday, the Friday and Saturday are basically written off too!) and more food than even my boss could eat!

But, and it's a huge but, that's not even what makes Durga Pooja special. For that you have to go back five months. That's when the planning starts. Each community forms a committee and they start planning their particular celebration. Each community (and that basically would be each road in the UK) builds a Pandal – a temporary temple. Some of these are so big they take 1-2 months to build.

I was trying to think of a suitable comparison for this, and really couldn't come up with much. The best I could do was this – imagine, each year, you and all your neighbours got together and built the biggest Santa's Grotto you could. As did all of the other roads in your town. And all the other towns across the UK. And then everyone spent all night walking the streets visiting each grotto and there were competitions for the best ones. This happens – every. single. year.

It's actually amazing. I visited my bosses parent's house, about 10km outside Kolkata. (This isn't tourist central. It's “proper” India. The Pandals being built here are for the locals. I didn't see another white person in the 4 or 5 days I was there.) In one evening, walking the whole time (no buses or anything), for maybe two hours, we saw maybe nine different pandals. One was three stories high, a mountain with a temple perched on the top. One was a complete replica of a traditional village. In Ranchi there was one where all of the designs were made out of the small, wooden spoons you get with pots of ice cream! There was one totally decorated with children's toys. The creativity and originality is spectacular.

I had a brilliant time – it was a great way to end my time in India. I left Kolkata on the Thursday after an emotional farewell with Swapan and Rabin, boarding a train to Ranchi. On Friday I said goodbye to the rest of the Srijan family and hopped on my flight to Chennai to spend a weekend with my friend (thanks Phil!) and then on Monday morning it was goodbye to India.


I'll probably write another post when I get back, a few last thoughts as it were, but I just want to take an opportunity to say thank you to some people. One year is a long time to be away, but some people have really helped to make that easier for me and I'm eternally grateful.

Suzie – For putting up with my highs and lows (yes, there were some!), for not getting frustrated with dodgy Skype calls and lost internet connections, for always being there when I needed you (and for an amazing holiday!)
Mum, Dad and Kez – For being brave enough to come to India and open-minded enough to enjoy it, however hard it was.
Sam and Kate – For making it to Hazaribag!
Nan and Grandad – For the brilliant, brilliant letters – literally had me laughing out loud at times!
Rachel / Kieran / Hamish / Lex / Hannah / Carl / Vicky (and Megan!) – For the random emails/IMs throughout the year – you're all legends and I don't think you know how much they meant to me. I owe you all.


So, I'm back in the UK on Tuesday! I'll be in the Porterhouse (Covent Garden) from 6pm (ish) on Friday 21st so if anyone needs an excuse for a beverage on a Friday night feel free to drop in!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Putting Things in Perspective

Coming to India can be a massive culture shock. It's not like taking a holiday in the Algarve! So when my parents and sister said that they were going to come and visit me in India, I was apprehensive to say the least. Not because I didn't want them to come, but because none of them had ever travelled anywhere like India before and I wanted them to have a good holiday!

For various reasons, my family were flying into Delhi and doing the “touristy” bits around that part of India (Taj, etc) and then I was going to fly to meet them and we were all flying down to Kerala together for a week. This made me even more nervous – I wouldn't even be there to greet them in Delhi and help them settle in!

This blog isn't going to be about Kerala (although I'm chucking in some pics of the place!  We stayed in Cochin, which is a lovely little town btw). Instead, I want to talk about the reaction of my family and why I think it's so important....

This blog has been my record (of a sort) of my time in India. It's not a 100% detailed account – it's the stuff I think people will find interesting / amusing / thought provoking. My natural style is to make light of things, paint things in a funny light and to be generally positive. The end result was that it was a bit of an eye-opener for my family when they hit Delhi....

I live in Hazaribag. I talk about the power cuts, the muddy roads, the cows in the road. People laugh, they think – wow, rural India must be pretty bizarre to live in. The thing is – Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai – they aren't that much different. By western standards they're dirty, loud, chaotic and pretty intimidating. There is poverty everywhere you look, and it can be quite distressing. People will try and rip you off because you're white. There is little “tourist infrastructure”, public transport is almost unintelligible and the majority of people speak only rudimentary English.

My family stayed (for the most part) in western hotels. Marriotts etc. These places are like little bubbles. They aren't India. Staying in them means you miss out on so much of what makes India brilliant (or, more specifically, makes it brilliant for me!), but perhaps more importantly, they enable you to forget the country that you are in. In these hotels there is the hot running shower, the mini-bar and the spotlessly clean bathrooms. If you put the hotel in England it would be luxurious – in India? It's like a completely different planet.

I think this made the experience even more extreme for my family – the contrast between the life in the hotel and the life outside of the four walls of their rooms. That might have led to them enjoying the experience less than if they'd stayed in a more “authentic” place, I don't know. But I do know that they're now far more aware of the living conditions for the vast majority of this country's 1.3bn population.

I am so proud of my family for coming to India. I know it was a huge step outside of their comfort zone and I respect them hugely for doing that. I've travelled to a lot of places off of the beaten track, which made it much easier to adapt to life here. I think that also when you know that you're in a place for a long period like I am, you force yourself to take a different perspective on obstacles. You can't do that as easily when you're only in a country for two weeks.

I had a fantastic week in Kerala and I hope my family enjoyed it as much as I did. I have a feeling that it will be a holiday they won't forget for a long time and hopefully it's been one that they will look back on and be glad that they did!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Disability Field Trip

I've talked from time to time about some of the work that Srijan Foundation does. I think it's important to remember that as much as I'm enjoying my time in India, there is obviously a very serious side to the work that VSO does – it's not a 12 month holiday! With that in mind, this is one of those serious posts.

Srijan is embarking on new ground with one of their projects at the moment. Whilst working in the mining areas of Kuju, the project managers there were struck by the number of people living with disability. Most of these people are shunned by the community and given little or no support, even from their families. Srijan wanted to help, but have no real experience of working with disability.

I was discussing this with Srijan's management team and pointed out that a large number of VSO placements are involved in disability work and that some of those organisations might be open to having Srijan visit for a day or two to see their work in action. Rajiv and Swapan thought it was a great idea and the Great Disability Field Trip (GDFT for later reference) was born.

I emailed the VSO vols and was overwhelmed with the response. We got offers from Siliguri, Koraput, Bhubaneswar, Kolkata and Delhi! That's basically everywhere VSO has a placement! Anyway, I put the options to Srijan and they decided we would go to Kolkata and Siliguri. Then just Kolkata. Then Kolkata and Koraput. Oh and it was 10 people. No, 15. No, 5. Hang on, maybe we'll just go to Siliguri. Repeat. A lot.....

After about 2 months (this isn't an exaggeration) we made a final decision. After the third final decision I booked tickets. A lot of tickets. You see, as well as the GDFT, we were also offering the rest of the organisation the chance to join us afterwards on a 2-day holiday in Darjeeling. 13 people took up the offer. 6 people were on the GDFT. 5 of the GDFT were going to Darjeeling via Kolkata. I was going via Pakur and Kolkata. The holiday team were going direct. Then I had people going home to lots of different locations. In short, I never, ever, ever, want to try and book a group holiday again!

But Tim, you said this was a serious post? Well, I'm getting to that....

In Kolkata, we visited Sanchar. Sanchar are basically the leading organisation in India when it comes to Case Based Rehabiliation (CBR). CBR is the fairly simple idea that every case needs to be judged on an individual basis – that disability can't be swept under the mat by means of media campaigns etc. Sanchar are in it for the long-haul, working with individuals, their families and their communities for years and years.

On our first day with Sanchar, Rajiv and I accompanied one of their case workers on a couple of field visits. We journeyed into the outskirts of Kolkata, to a gorgeous little village. It was almost too picturesque with little ponds everywhere – so much greenery – I'm not used to that in Hazaribag!

We visited a young girl (I think she was 10) who had severe learning difficulties. I'm not sure what the term in the UK would be, in India they simply call it “Mental Retardation”, which feels very insensitive to my English ears, but appears to be the accepted term here. While we watched, her case worker took her through a number of exercises, such as counting on an abacus-like device, colouring, etc. Her younger brothers helped out.

I have friends who work in these fields – Occupation Therapists and such-like. I have a completely new level of respect for them after watching this young lady working with the girl. The patience, the dedication, the enthusiasm – so heart-warming and motivating. I'd love to show you photos, but the poor girl was distracted enough at having a white man in the house and I was really worried me grabbing my camera would a) upset her or b) further distract her.

After an hour, we moved on to a different part of the village and possibly the most distressing thing I've witnessed since being in India. I'm not going to lie here people – this had me close to tears...

We walked up a path to a temple where there was a man, probably about 40, shouting at an old woman. He was very aggressive, possibly drunk. About 10 metres past the temple was a young boy – Totum.

Totum has cerebral palsy. He is 8 years old I think. As we walked up, he was lying, face down, completely naked in the mud. His poor, spindly legs lay beneath him, caked in dirt. His father was the man shouting just metres away, apparently unconcerned with his child's condition.

His case worker disappeared off into the hut behind him and re-appeared with a walking aid. Totum, smiling all the time, struggled to raise himself up to a standing position and slowly edged himself forward. The wheels and feet of the walking aid continually caught in the mud and uneven ground. He slowly made his way the 15 metres or so to the water's edge, where he lowered himself onto a tyre that was placed in the pond and proceeded to wash himself clean.

I can think of few children who could have seemed happier while doing this. Emboldened by his attitude, I asked if he minded me taking some photos – he was more than happy for me to, as long as I didn't show him naked!

After washing, he climbed onto a nearby cart and dressed himself, then we made our way into his house and he was positioned in the special chair made to support him and went through a number of exercises designed for him. Like many children with his condition, Totum has an active and excellent mind, he simply has problems with his motor skills. Unfortunately, without the specialist care that would be made available for him in the Western world, he is neglected in the schools here, even though he is an extremely clever young boy.

I could have spent far more than the two hours with Totum. While it was sad to see a young boy with so much vitality in such a depressing state, you could tell that he was not someone who would complain about his deal in life. He was happy for the small things that were available to him.

So next time you get a bit down with life. Next time you think you've been dealt a bad hand. Stop. Think for a second about Totum. Realise that you're probably actually not in that bad a situation. Smile to yourself, embrace whatever challenge has been put in front of you and get on with living your life. If Totum can, we all can....

Side note – I have no idea who is reading this blog and whether it can reach anyone who can help, but there must be a better piece of equipment for Totum than the walking aid he is trying to use. It is simply not designed for the uneven, muddy ground of his village – it's designed for the pavements and smooth surfaces of a western society. If anyone has any thoughts/ideas/suggestions on how to solve this problem, let me know via the comments and I'll put you in contact with Sanchar...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

An (almost) English Tea Party

As I'm sure most of you will have seen from Facebook, Monday was my birthday. As another reminder that I'm actually not that young (well, physically anyway – we all know I'll never get past the age of about 19 mentally) any more, I thought about how to celebrate this stunning milestone here in India.

One of the most important aspects of volunteering is a sharing of cultures. Not only do I get to experience living in rural India, but the people I work and live with get to hear about (and see) a lot of the aspects of life in England.

So with that in mind, what could be more appropriate than an English Tea Party for my birthday?!? I invited all of the office, my landlords and a few of my friends from Hazaribag promising a plethora of European food and party games. I had no idea if anyone would actually turn up, or whether they would enjoy any of the stuff I was making, but I figured at least I'd have something to do with my Sunday!

Flapjack-y goodness
So Saturday night, I got to work. First up was the flapjacks and the chocolate rice krispie cakes. (Disclaimer – Rice Krispies a la Mr Kellogg are not actually available, but puffed rice is sold everywhere as a savoury snack). I was initially hindered by a power cut (bet Delia never has to deal with these conditions, mum!) but was pretty happy with the results.

Don't tell Mr Kellogg.

Spanish omelette. Loved by Indians everywhere....
Sunday, I was up bright and early – I had a lot to do. First was boiling up the chickpeas for my homemade hummus. Although they love chickpeas here, pre-cooked ones haven't caught on! Then it was time for some steamed pudding, followed by a Spanish omelette.

Side note – Indians love spanish omelettes. I have no idea why, but from the first time I mentioned one, they've been obsessed with it in my office. I realise that neither hummus nor the omelette are English, but sod it. It's my party and I'll cook what I want to! (Or, more accurately, what I can with the ingredients available and a two hob stove.....)

Steamed Raisin Pudding. Oh yes!
I then had a last minute request for mashed potato from didn't matter that we really had nothing to eat it with. So alongside the hummus and various veg for dipping, sat a lovely dollop of “smashed potato”.

Finally, a huge plate of jam sandwiches (I think this fully restores the English-ness of the occasion to be honest...) and we were ready. Biscuits and crisps were added to the table, banana smoothie and fizzy drinks joined them.

Everyone loves musical sheets-of-paper-on-the-floor...
Then I got worried that no-one would turn up....I'd made a LOT of food!

Luckily lots of people did. We ate a lot of food, we listened to music (Western and Indian!), we witnessed the brutality of a father cheating his son in a game of Musical Chairs and we had some Indian dancing. The Moonwalk may have made an appearance....

We have a winner!

 Towards the end of the party, for reasons that were completely beyond me considering the amount of food I'd made, they decided we needed to have some Indian food as well and someone was dispatched to, well, er, dispatch, a chicken. At various points in the process I think everyone in the group got involved in cooking and made their own additions in terms of spices, salt and pepper (I admit to feeling proud that I had 90% of the ingredients they asked for!). So, my English Tea Party took a distinctly Indian turn towards the end of the evening!

Hamburger cocktail sticks and chicken curry. Obviously.

It was a great day, I had a lot of laughs, as I think the pics show. A few factoids for you all:
  • Musical Chairs winner – Babita
  • Favourite Dish – Spanish Omelette. If it had been a boxing match, this contest would have been stopped in the first round. There was none left within about 15mins!
  • Best dancer – Sanjit
  • Best present – the Hamburger-styled cocktail sticks

So, another birthday down. Next year is a biggie (30). I wonder where I'll be for that one..... ;-)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Independence Day in Jharkhand

As many of you will know, I'm a big Will Smith fan. Sorry to report, however, that this is not a post about watching Big Willie kick some alien butt on July 4th. Monday (15th August) was Independence Day in India – celebrating the end of the British Rule over the country. Obviously this is a pretty important date in the National calendar and as such it is a national holiday.

I was invited to attend an event at one of our project sites – Kuju. Kuju is a small mining village between Hazaribag and Ranchi (the capital of Jharkhand). Our organisation work to help children in the village and the surrounding areas continue with their education – providing schools for children who have had to leave government schools early, providing vocational learning etc. There is also a residential school for girls so that their parents can work and the children can stay in education.

We travelled up to Kuju by bus and arrived shortly after 9am. As we came up to the school, Mukesh, who I had come with, noticed that there was already a group of people in the field outside the school, so we went straight over to that.

Sanjit (our Project Co-ordinator) and Mukesh (another Co-ordinator) were busy erecting a flag-pole, the base of which had been decorated with various coloured paints. The children were milling around, waiting for the main event. After 30-45 minutes, Swapan (our Secretary) and a local politican turned up and the ceremony began.

The ceremony was fairly short – the national flag was hoisted, a couple of songs sung, a short speech and we were done. Back into the school we went and I was intrigued to find out what the rest of the day held in store....

Instead of going into the office however, we went up onto the roof of the building. Here they were busy erecting a marquee and PA system. We were going to have some entertainment! I took the opportunity to take a fair few photos – some good, some bad!

The rest of the morning until lunch was taken up with a variety show by the children of the school. It was good fun – lots of singing, dancing and some sketches as well. The children all had a competition to do a drawing of Independence Day and I got involved in the judging. It was like India's Got Talent! (I realise this makes me Simon Cowell – I'm not pleased about it)

One amusing custom was that when we gave out the prizes at the end of the day, after collecting their gift all of the children kept trying to touch the feet of the prize-giver – me included! Cue a load of bizarre dancing/jumping on all our parts and trying to catch the children before they could do it. I didn't get a chance to ask about it, but it's obviously some form of subservience / deference.

It's also not the only circumstance in which this happens. If you bump into someone's foot, the immediate reaction is to touch their foot with your hand and to make a kind of mini-sign of the cross – touching the forehead and chest. It's almost instinctive for most people and the closest we have to it in the UK would be someone saying “bless you” if a person sneezes I guess. (Something that Indians find hilarious by the way, especially when I explained the origins as being from the Black Death and basically implying that the person is going to die....)

After the presentations, we had one final dance routine, which took ages as the PA system couldn't play track 7 on the CD. We kept getting the same intro to a different song again, and again, and again, and again! Mind you, the equipment they were using looked older than my dad's old Technics equipment, which probably means it was made around 1980 or something, so a few hiccups is probably allowed!

After the show we had some lunch and I distributed the sweets I'd brought from the UK (Wine Pastilles, Jelly Babies and Haribo!). I say distributed, everyone in the room got a couple and then Swapan packed the rest into his bag to “share” with Rajiv and the others later....yet to see any evidence of that one!

After lunch it was back to Hazaribag for the afternoon. It was nice to see a country proud of it's nationality. In the UK the St. George's flag has unfortunately come to represent hooliganism and football yobs to many people – displaying it is not always seen as a proud thing to do. The fact that the whole nation here stops to remember their country is a really inspiring thing.

On a separate note, a few weeks ago I took some photos down by the Jheel (where I go jogging in the morning) as the sun was setting. The day before had actually been even more beautiful, but there you go. It's a nice reminder that Hazaribag is actually a pretty beautiful place in some parts (when it's not raining and muddy and damp and mouldy like it is now!).

As ever, more pics over on the Flickr site if you're interested....

Monday, August 15, 2011

Getting Back on Track

India can be a confusing and over-whelming country. I should know – I've been here 8 months! Except, those 8 months tend to blind you to some of the country's eccentricities. Things that might have left you gob-smacked at the start of your placement, drift over you with barely a ripple being seen.

So with that in mind, the next week will be especially interesting, as I've just got back from a week back in the UK for a friend's wedding. Obviously the most important part of that was seeing Mike get married and catching up with the family, but I found it interesting how quickly I cast off my recent history and fell back into my previous habits and thought patterns.

Some simple examples:
  • having a coffee in a cafe
  • going to the pub
  • washing your toothbrush with tap water
  • plumbing (including “Western” toilets and drains!)
  • queueing
This might seem like a pretty inconsequential list, but this is more of a list of things you notice when you get back to the UK. The heavy-hitting comes when you get back to India. Seeing people selling a handful of vegetables off of some rags in the road. Collecting rain water from tarpaulins to drink. Litter everywhere.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's easy to get “acclimatised” to these things. And that this isn't a good thing. It's important to keep some perspective – and that is difficult to do when this level of poverty is staring you in the face everyday....and you're effectively part of it.

In the UK, Suzie and I spent two days in the country pub/hotel for the wedding and spent £200 on our bill, even though breakfast was included, a lot of the drinks at the wedding were free and we skipped lunch one of those days. £200 in two days. That's two months wages for some of the project managers I work with here - and they are relatively well off. That has to provide a roof for them and their families. Pay for food, school and everything else.

I had an amazing time in Oxford. I saw one of my best friends get married in a fantastic wedding, I saw Suzie. I saw a lot of my family. Funnily enough though, the biggest plus might be the impact it has on me here in India in helping me to keep a sense of perspective and focus on what I'm doing here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Succeeding whilst failing

It seems like there is a lot of self-reflection amongst the other VSO volunteers at the moment. So, having had my mid-year review (admittedly a couple of months late!), I thought it was time to take stock of my placement so far and think about what constitutes a “successful placement”.

Paul (via Corey) talks about his three rules:
  1. Do no evil
  2. Have fun
  3. Treat any difference you make as a bonus
This might seem like a pretty low bar to success, but the reality is that making changes is difficult. VSO warn you about not expecting to change the world, but surely we can hope to do something a bit more than just not make things worse?

I had a number of objectives when I was sent to India. In theory these were agreed between VSO India and my organisation and should have formed the basis of my placement. In reality, for me and for the majority of volunteers, these objectives are turned on their head in the first few months of the placement. I was no different.

My role at Srijan is “MIS Officer”. I've only just (8 months in) been able to even think about MIS. My objectives were to build an MIS system and develop the organisation's MIS abilities and practices. Measuring my placement on this basis, it's been a complete failure. Yet Srijan are delighted with my work and would have happily had me extend my placement (which I'm unfortunately unable to do - visas, funding, job back in the UK, Suzie!).

So how can both be true? How can my organisation be so happy, yet I've missed my objectives so completely. It's down to those objectives being completely inappropriate to the work actually required. MIS? Srijan didn't need MIS – they needed basic project management processes and a move towards professionalism.

Seth Godin wrote about this the other day. Before you can teach anyone anything, they need to act in a professional manner. When I joined Srijan two things were clear: firstly, that communications between the senior management and the field offices were poor; secondly, no-one did anything independently – they had to be chased and chased and chased.

Fast forward eight months. All of the project managers and senior project staff have access to an internal email system and are using it. Reports and plans are submitted on a timely basis giving the senior management far more visibility about what's happening on their projects. Staff are working independently and taking a pride in their project's success. There is a desire to improve and to do a good job that didn't exist before.

IT training in MS Office skills has resulted in a significant increase in quality products being developed. Project Managers are far more comfortable using IT systems and this is saving time and increasing productivity.

We have initiated three new projects, for which I've had major input into the proposal writing. We are now working with Unicef on iradicating Polio in eastern Jharkhand. We also got funding to continue the work we are doing on education in a mining area and start an innovative HIV / Aids project to combat the dangers of diseases spread by migratory workers.

All of the project staff now have a documented Roles and Responsibilities document. We have set six month objectives and development areas for all of them to try to develop their career and make Srijan a positive place to work.

Srijan has a web presence, which although not particularly active yet, will be developed over the final months of my placement to help raise the organisation's visibility.

Are these massive, sweeping changes? Not at all. In isolation these changes would be seen as fairly minor, but when you look at the culture of Srijan. When you speak to the project managers and notice how much more involved and engaged they are on their projects. When you look at the work the senior management team is doing – finding more time to work on strategy and proposals. When you consider the visibility of issues on projects. All of this is difficult to measure and yet is of vital importance to an organisation like Srijan.

So yes, when I sit down at the end of the year with VSO and assess the success of my placement, I may not have met many (or indeed, any!) of my initial objectives. Does that make my time here a failure? Does it mean I'm not proud of what I've achieved so far (or hope to achieve before I leave)? Not in the slightest.

Oh, and when it comes to the first two of Paul's objectives? Well, I hope I haven't done any harm here – I certainly don't think I have! And fun? Well I think this blog is testimony to the fact that I've managed that one... :-)

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Close Shave

One of the more amusing regular experiences I get to have here in Hazaribag is going for a haircut. The first time I did this in India I simply went to one of the little huts just near to my flat. For the stunning price of Rs15 (roughly 20p) my frankly ridiculously long hair was trimmed to something approaching respectability. Bargain.

Since then I've gone up in the world of Indian barbers to a shop down the street. It's more expensive, but they have fans and (power permitting) A/C, which makes the whole experience a bit more bearable. Plus you get an Indian head massage afterwards, which can be pretty good!

As with many barbers in the UK you can get a shave here too. This isn't something I do back home, but here I thought “In for a penny....let's give it a go”. So now I go through a basically weekly (or two!) cycle of growing a ridiculous semi-beard and then getting it all shaved off again. So far, so dull right?

Well yesterday I had what I have to say was one of my strangest experiences so far in India. I went to the barber's after work and had a shave. Nothing particularly exciting about the shave (although he nicked my neck - not happy!), but just as I'm about to leave, they asked me if I wanted a massage.... ”yeah, why not” I thought....

So off he goes, 10-15 mins of face massage etc. It's pretty good. Then he stops for a bit. After a minute or so I look around and he's busy putting a glove on his right hand. That's a bit bizarre, thinks I. Not that he's putting a glove on. That's a bit weird, I admit - it's more that the glove also has a huge contraption on the back of it.....which he turns on and it starts vibrating! (Imagine a home-made version of the thing on the right....) So now he's massaging my head with this thing going like a jackhammer, then my neck, then he pushes me forward in the chair and starts running it up and down my back. Except the guy to my right decides he's not doing it right, so he gets involved too....

...then it's on to my shoulder and arms. I half expected him to ask me to stand up so he could do my legs too! Eventually, after another go at my head, he stops that one.

Then it got really weird.

He pulls out this thing that looks a bit like a drill from a child's toy set. Except imagine it with a sandpaper adapter on it – a small, circular disk on the front. Luckily this disk was not like sandpaper, it was smooth, because he proceeds to use this thing to massage my face!!!! Basically it vibrates too and he spent a good five minutes rubbing this thing all over my face.

I guess it's something like this:
….except the one he used was bright yellow and so it looked like it had been bought in the Early Learning Centre.

I'm not really sure what the point of it was to be honest. It wasn't very relaxing, and rather than massaging my forehead like you'd expect, he seemed determined to "massage" my eye sockets and nostrils. Now, I'm no expert on massage, but I'm not sure that's standard. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if he was even a trained masseur at all..... ;-)

So, I've now been in this barber's for about an hour and he's finally finished. Oh. Except of course he's not. Now he wants to put some rose water in my eyes (I have to decline this on account of my contact lenses)! To be honest I think he was a bit bored and was beginning to just pick things up from around the shop and see what stupid things he could do to the idiot Englishman. If you do a search the whole thing is probably already up on Youtube....

I'd been intending heading to the lake for sunset and having a coffee and a bit of reading. My massage marathon meant that it was now pitch black outside. Next time I think I'll take the sunset....probably more relaxing!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Lost in Translation

I've been in India for over 7 months now. In less than 4 more I will begin my journey home. I'm in a completely non-tourist area (I have seen less than 5 white people in Hazaribag. One of those was Suzie and seeing as I brought her here, I'm not even sure that counts!). Many of my colleagues speak only rudimentary English. I'm (allegedly) not entirely stupid. So I'm almost fluent in Hindi now, right?

Wrong. Big time.

Hindi is a difficult language to learn. Really, really, really difficult. Not least of the problems is that there is a completely different alphabet to get to grips with. The Hindi alphabet (called Devanagari) has 14 vowels and 36 consonants. For those of you who struggled with maths, that's almost twice as many as the Western alphabet we're used to.

Then you have to consider the way you make the sounds. Look at the consonants section. Check out rows 3 and 4 of that table. See anything that strikes you? Yep, they're basically identical. The difference is down to what you do with your tongue (stop sniggering at the back). For one you push your tongue up against the roof of your mouth, the other you push against your teeth at the front of your mouth.

I'll give you a small example:

Try saying those three and imagining the difference between them. Now imagine you've got people talking at you at 90mph and in an India accent. Think you can tell the difference? No, well you need to be able to because you're either being asked to eat something, do something or say something. Yep, three of the most useful verbs there are: eat, do and say – basically identical. Great.

So, you're a conscientious volunteer. You've got all sorts of materials. You've downloaded Hindi learning software, you've got mp3 podcasts, you've got books. You just need a teacher now....


Apparently, and in my opinion rather short-sightedly, Hazaribag has not seen any real need to import a large number of English-speaking Hindi private tutors. In fact, there is a sum total of....well, none. Since December I've been trying to find someone. My organisation have continuously said they're working on it. A couple of times I thought we were close....

...for example, one Sunday (in April I think) I actually got collected from my flat and driven across town by one of the staff. Here we go, I thought. Five months down, that's not too bad. We pull up at a house and walk up the drive. Sanjit has been referring to the teacher as “The Madam” (I said stop laughing!) and a sweet old lady answers the door. She speaks very good English, but obviously has absolutely no idea why we're there. I assumed there was some mis-communication, but was hopeful that once we explained the problem she would help me out. Then she said something that really surprised me.....

“but I don't know Hindi!”

…yep, in the state of Jharkhand, whose official language is Hindi, I had managed to find probably the most fluent English-speaking Indian (at one point she even used the phrase “Kicked the bucket”!)– and she didn't speak Hindi!!!!

I was eventually passed to her next-door neighbours, who run an IT school. They're nice people, but obviously have never taught a language lesson in their lives. Their approach was an interesting one. I was asked to copy all of the letters out first. Ok, that makes sense. I can do that. I did do that. Okay, next lesson:
Them - “Right, have a conversation with this boy here”
Me - “Um, but I don't know any Hindi.”
Them - “Hindi bolte hai!” (speak in Hindi)
Me - “um.....”

Them - “Your homework today is to write 10-15 lines on the agriculture industry of the UK”
Me - “I don't think I can do that in English, let alone Hindi....”
Them - “Hindi bolte hai!”

Random boy in class, when asked to talk to me for practice – [Says some Hindi I don't understand]
Me – “MaiN nahiin samajta huun” (I don't understand)
Them – “He asked you what your favourite season is”
Me - “Um.....” (I should point out that this was a completely random question. We hadn't done any vocabulary on seasons. Or talked about how to express opinions. Or done anything that I could use here.....)

In 9 or 10 lessons we haven't even approached any grammar or anything useful. Their approach seems to be – bombard him with Hindi, without explaining any of it, and hope that something sticks. If I could learn like that I would be fluent by now!!!! So I'm stopping them.

I am improving though. It's just very slow. Frustratingly so. Partly down to my pronunciation. Partly down to my lack of good grammar. Partly because often people are expecting me to talk in English and therefore trying to translate my pigeon-Hindi into Hindi!!!

Most of the time, the situation I'm in means that I can work out what's going on, even if I don't understand 100% of the conversation, but sometimes it just confuses the hell out of me. Like today – I've had to change my washer-woman (the previous guy's stall got demolished!). I went for the second time to pick up my clothes this lunch time. We got through the entire transaction fine and then as I went to leave she started to say something. I couldn't understand, but I knew she was saying something about my dirty clothes. It seemed to be that she was telling me to bring them for cleaning.....but that's what I have been doing already! Oh well, I'm sure if it's important I'll find out eventually!

So I stumble around town, having short, stunted conversation with people. Some people seem amazed that I'm not fluent in Hindi, talking at me and even when I explain that I don't understand they just carry on talking to me, asking questions. Other people are absolutely amazed when I show any level of Hindi knowledge at all.

It's actually pretty much like being Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Except I haven't seen Scarlett Johansson yet....

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ginger volunteer vs Indian weather

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel; I've broken the back of it; I'm over the crest of the hill; The hard part is over; It's all downhill from here....

I'm now well into the second half of my placement. In five months exactly, my visa for India expires and I am feeling good about having conquered the thing that potentially worried me the most about living here in India - the weather.

When I arrived here in November last year it was still a nice balmy mid-20s. When I got to Jharkhand in December it was a bit cooler and slowly got down to a chilly 5C....but that didn't bother me. I'm English for goodness sake - we have cooler summer's days in August (normally the Bank Holiday weekend to coincide with my birthday ironically). What did worry me? The reports of 45C+.

For the colour blind amongst you, I'm ginger. Yes, it's true. Some of you might not have noticed. Unfortunately, us gingers do not have a particularly impressive track record in hot weather. So despite my mother's helping hand in my DNA, I definitely lean to the Myles side of the family and our ability to get sun-burnt sitting in a darkened cupboard at night. 45C was not an attractive proposition to me.

Added to this, our office wasn't exactly state of the art (see previous post). We did have a fan, but it had a tendency to stop. When it did, it was the equivalent of trying to work in a sauna. Walking the 300m back to my flat for lunch resulted in a need to change my t-shirt. Sitting at my desk in the evening checking my emails had a similar effect. It. Was. Hot.

The middle of June (specifically 10th-15th) however, is an important date in Jharkhand. It marks the arrival of the monsoon. And it's now here in all it's glory. We have buckets of water, the ground is a mess, it's mid-20s temperatures.....AND I'M LOVING IT!!!!

Honestly, it's so funny - everyone keeps asking me what I think of the weather! I say - it's like this for 9-10 months of the year in England. But cold. And windy. And just generally miserable. Here? It's still warm, it's refreshing and lovely and cool.

That's the light-hearted side of things, but the monsoon is critical in many parts of Jharkhand, as it is for most of India - as about 60% of the country’s farm-lands are rain-fed and agriculture accounts for a fifth of the GDP. Last year, while overall for India it was better than 2009, in Jharkhand it was not good - crops died and water tables were depleted - it has huge (and obviously far more important) impacts beyond just cooling down the overseas volunteers. It will last until mid-August and needs to replenish the land to enable crops to be grown for the rest of the year, when rainfall will be minimal.

So thankfully it looks like this will be a good year for the monsoon. It might make my morning run a bit more dreary (and messy! the road to my flat is like a ploughed field!) and I'm sure after 6-8 weeks I'll have had enough of it all, but there are more important things than staying dry at the end of the day. Like eating. And having crops to sell and money to live in general.

So, thank you monsoon. You've made one Englishman and 1.3bn (roughly) Indians very happy!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Same country, very different experiences....

Blogging is an excellent way for me to let you guys back home (or around the world – you know who you are!) keep up-to-date on my travels, (toilet) trials and tribulations. It's also a great way for volunteers to share experiences. I try to keep up to date on the blogs of a number of other volunteers – it's nice to know other people are sometimes in the same boat, but it's also sometimes interesting to compare how different our experiences can be....

Corey and Gina are a couple who are living in Korput, which is in Orissa (those of you with foggy Indian geography, that's on the east coast, south of Kolkata!). They've been there for over a year now and Corey, like me, is an IT professional.

First, as an aside, they wrote a fascinating article about the challenges of a couple volunteering together, so if anyone missed that and is considering it, it's well worth a read.

Anyway, getting to the point. Corey wrote a post the other day that I found fascinating. It's about the work that he's been doing and well worth a read, he's been doing some awesome stuff – but I couldn't help but compare his experience to mine. I think it's fascinating to see two placements, in the same country, with similar job roles, being so completely different.

Like me, Corey was sent to India to help provide MIS. For those not familiar with the term, it means Management Information Systems. The idea is that by using MIS you can analyse data far quicker and easier, helping you to make business decisions. For example, you might see that one project is spending far more on phone calls than another after analysing the expenses. This could allow you to get a more cost effective call plan.

That's the work I was supposed to be doing in India. Except my organisation isn't in any state to do this. The fundamentals just aren't there. The expenses aren't submitted properly, so I can't analyse any of the finances. There is basically no reporting, so I can't analyse any of that. Project plans? Nope, none of them either!

On top of that, the fundamental skills just aren't there for me to even begin to do something like an Access Database. Half of the staff can't even use a word processor properly. Changing fonts, selecting text, these are the skills I'm trying to teach. MIS? They don't even really know what they mean by it!

So I'm actually doing a back to basics version of my IBM job – teaching project management and basic office skills. Which is great, don't get me wrong, but it just highlights how flexible you need to be as a volunteer!

Ok, next topic of comparison – finances and equipment. Corey has a picture of his 20 batteries and inverter. These help the office keep running when the power is out. 20 batteries. Twenty! We have one. My office has two computers. If you turn the printer on, the lights go out. This just goes to highlight the impact that the organisation's size and funding situation can have.

Corey just spent $300 on a Network Attached Storage box. This is a fancy network hard-drive. It's cool and extremely useful....if everyone has their own computer that is. In our office, everyone shares one computer! Networking isn't quite so important in that context! Our great office expenditure will be replacing the current broadband box with one that includes a wireless router. Total cost, maybe £20.

Srijan is a small organisation. We've got about 30 “full-time” staff. Why the quotes? Those staff just mean the paid workers, not volunteers. Some of them probably only do 5-10 hours per week.In terms of what I would call core workers, we've got 15-20. SOVA (Corey's org) is significantly bigger, and obviously much better financed. Our annual budget is around Rs 60-70 Lakh (£100,000), I wouldn't be surprised to hear SOVA has that as the annual budget of one project!

So I've got it tough and Corey's living the life of Riley, right? Not quite. My partner organisation are awesome when it comes to taking advice and being open to new ideas. Corey talks about the struggles that he's had making changes – for me, it's more a case of trying to hold back so as not to overwhelm everyone!

I can't speak highly enough of the management and staff attitudes to trying new things. Build a website? Sure. How about an Intranet? Go for it. Individual emails for all staff instead of sharing a few joint accounts? Ok. HR Policy? Why not. Finance Policy? Sounds good. Weekly reporting? Let's give it a go. Etc. etc. I'm not saying I get to do whatever I want, but if I put an idea forward, they're open to it. We've made some great progress in 6 months and that is testament to the attitudes of everyone in Srijan.

When you apply for VSO they tell you, read your placement description, then expect to be doing something completely different! I think that's definitely true. What I don't think I had considered was quite the range of different roles there would be within one country and one type of role...

...and at the end of the day that's what makes this so cool. You don't know what you're going to get into, but it's all important, it's all worthwhile, and you just do as good a job as you can.

Right, where's my candle? I need to print this document out.... ;-)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Around Jharkhand in 20 days

The last couple of weeks have been pretty manic. I've been all over Jharkhand, visiting different field offices as we do a review of all of our projects. It's pretty amazing the range of projects that Srijan gets involved in, mainly because their focus is on community mobilisation, not on particular sections of society. I thought I'd try to give everyone a feel for the work we do.....

Polio in Pakur
First stop was Pakur. This is right out in the East of Jharkhand. It's a fair old trek – 10-12hr drive. On roads that make you feel like Tigger by the end of it! I was told to expect scorching temperatures (45C+), but we got lucky and they were mid-to-high 30s – possibly even lower than Hazaribag!

This is a major new project for Srijan. In more ways than one. Firstly, the sheer importance of the work. It's the fight against Polio. I would imagine most people reading this, like me, are completely ignorant about Polio. For good reason – there are only four countries in the world where Polio is still in the wild. India is one. The Indian government has made it their mission to eliminate this disease and it's getting close.

In Pakur last year, there were eight cases of Polio. The aim for this year is obviously for none. The strategy – immunisation of all children under 5. It's a huge campaign. Every month there are “Pulse Polio” rounds for the next ten months. Added to that is a weekly “routine immunisation” campaign.

Srijan is responsible for half of the 10 grids in Pakur. Which brings me to the second reason for the importance of this project. It's being run by UNICEF. Obviously the recognition to be gained from a successful project with UNICEF is huge for Srijan.

The project is just starting, with a completely new team, so we were visiting to ensure things were going to plan. We've also just started doing Objective Setting for every Srijan employee, as well as documenting their Roles and Responsibilities, so both of those tasks needed to be completed.

The Core Group
After a few days it was back to Ranchi, the state capital. We have started a new initiative in Srijan – the creation of a Core Group. This is a team of three employees who we feel have the attitude and behaviours that make them stand out from their colleagues. They will hopefully be taking over more of the day-to-day running of the organisation over the next 6 months, allowing the current Senior Management team (basically, the founders of Srijan) to step away from the coal-face.

So we had the kick-off meeting for the Core Group, which was pretty successful. If nothing else, it creates a method for rewarding better work within the organisation, even if it takes longer than Srijan would like to get to a position where they are helping to run the organisation.

We've also started an “Employee of the Month” award. Sounds corny, right? But I knew from my IBM work in India that it works out here. First recipient – a woman who brought 20 participants out of a total of 28 to a group session. Next session? One of her colleagues brought 36! I think that counts as a success!!!

Back to Hazaribag
The tour continued with a short stay back in Hazaribag, doing Objective Setting for the teams there. Our projects in the area include improving farming irrigation techniques, improving girls education opportunities and the rights of the disabled.

Sex Workers in Gumla and Khelari
Back to Ranchi again, which was our base for two day trips to Gumla and Khelari. These are towns in the West of Jharkhand. They're mining towns. Mining attracts migrant workers. Migrant workers attract sex workers, which makes these communities high-risk for AIDs.

Srijan are doing a “Targeted Intervention” in these two towns, educating the sex workers on the importance of protection, providing medical check-ups etc and educating the local communities on some of the myths that prevail about the disease. More project reviews and Objective Setting here then back to Ranchi.

Late night viewing
Getting back to Ranchi on the 28th meant that I was able to stay up and watch the Champions League Final. It's not often that you enjoy watching your team get thoroughly thumped, but I did. Barcelona were mesmerising. That's all I'll be saying about it though. It still hurts....

Back to Pakur
After a “day off” sitting in the office in Ranchi, I travelled on Monday back to Pakur, where I've now been for almost a week. It's important that we get the right processes in place early on this project, so I'm helping the Project Manager here to ensure he's got everything considered, as well as being the eyes and ears for the management team.

Health Services in Hiranpur
We've got another project nearby, so I went on a field visit there yesterday. This project is to encourage the use of the health services provided by the Government. Some of you may have seen a recent report by the World Bank on Public Services provided in India.....there are a lot of good schemes here in India, but one of the biggest problems is that people don't know about them. The CHIN-Change project is seeking to address that, by educating people about their rights to Government services.

I'm going to be in Pakur until Wednesday, then it's an overnight train back to Ranchi, then.....? Maybe back to Hazaribag, who knows! This is basically three weeks without a day off now – this volunteering lark isn't all holidays to Nepal :-) I'm trying to convince some of the guys here to go to the cinema tomorrow night though, could be amusing....not sure my Hindi is good enough yet, but it's all about the experience, right?!?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nepal Holiday Pt 3 – Hazaribag and the IPL

Having conquered Annapurna (well, the Base Camp!) we were pretty exhausted to be honest. Originally we had planned to go to Chitwan National park, which is kind of on the way back to India, but we'd enjoyed our one evening in Pokhara so much before the trek that we tempted ourselves into just staying there for a couple of days and then heading back to India.

Good choice!

We had lazy mornings in coffee shops. We sat around and read books. We laughed at people getting caught in the afternoon thunderstorms. It was, to use one word, relaxing. Just what was required!

People who know either of us will know though that we can't do sitting around for too long. So one day we decided to take a canoe out on the lake that sits next to Pokhara. We bought some of the now infamous pastries, some fruit and off we set....

Canoeing can be hard work. We made it look especially difficult! To start with we couldn't stay on a straight line. Plus there was a head wind. After 10 minutes I was knackered! We spent 3hrs or so on the lake, pulling in and out of the shore-line, eating our snacks, surveying the scene. It was good fun.

Some of you will know that Suzie used to be a bit handy with an oar in her hand. She was part of a crew that got a Bronze medal at the British Rowing Championships. Allegedly. I say allegedly, because I didn't see any evidence of it in this boat. Most of the time she just sat back and let me do all the hard work (more fool me, I guess). Don't be fooled by her pic on Facebook of her with an oar in her hand. It was the only time it touched the water!

Anyway, we called it a day after a few hours, partly because I was definitely slowing down, but mainly because we could see the afternoon storm approaching and boating on a lake is definitely more fun with the water beneath you rather than dropping onto you!

The next day we visited the Mountaineering Museum, which was pretty awesome actually. Loads of memoirs of the people who first conquered the tallest mountains in the world. You see some of the equipment that the first people used and you just think “How the f&^k?”. We were freezing at 4000m, with modern sleeping bags, loads of thermals, etc. Those people are seriously impressive, if I had a cap, I'd be tipping it to them.

Oh, and if you do happen to be in Pokhara, make sure you go to the Tibetan restaurant there. Absolutely fantastic. And Tibetan bread? Wonderful stuff – made a brilliant change to the flatbreads of India :-)

Unfortunately every holiday has to come to an end eventually. We had train tickets booked from Gorakhpur on Tuesday night. Those of you with good memories might remember I've been there before – it was one of the stops on my last trip back from Nepal. Last time though we just turned up hoping to catch a bus to Hazaribag and had to wangle our way onto a train. This time I was a bit more prepared!

Unfortunately we had to catch a bus to get there. Two buses actually, one to the border with India, then another to Gorakhpur. 6Hrs, we were told. We left at 7.30am, we arrived around 4.30pm. Quelle surpris! To be honest, I was getting a bit worried towards the end of the journey, trying to add up the rest of our trip in my head. We were getting tight for time. When we finally made it to Sunauli I started to relax. Far too soon as it happens....

You see, when Suzie arrived in India she'd spotted something she hadn't noticed in the UK. Her visa, although a multiple entry tourist visa, said if she left India she had to stay out of the country for 60 days. We'd been out for about 12 days. For those of you who's maths GCSE was a few years back, I can confirm that 12 is definitely not 60. It's actually quite a lot less.

So we went onto the Internet. Lots of people with the same problem. Lots of people saying it's not a problem any more and they're getting the thing fixed. Don't worry about it. Someone posted about a week ahead of us that they got through fine. Nice.

Except we didn't get through fine. They kicked up a bit of a fuss. We should have gone to the Indian Embassy (that's in Kathmandu by the way) etc. etc. Apparently we'd have to pay there for a letter of approval to get back into India. Hmmm. Or, we could just pay the officer at the border and he would pass on our payment for us. Of course he will ;-)

I hate admitting that we paid this, but we did. We had to. Suzie had to come back into India with me. We needed to get our train. She was due to fly out of Kolkata on Sunday. There wasn't another option. Sometimes things suck. That's life. Anyway, we got into India. We got to Gorakhpur with plenty of time and caught our train. The rest of the journey to Hazaribag was surprisingly pain-free to be honest.

Hazaribag, as you'll have gathered over the previous 6 months (yep, that's how long I've been away, do you miss me? :-p) is not a Mecca for tourists. There's nothing to do. It's hot (40C at the moment) too, so walking around in the day isn't really an option either, so we kept our activities to a minimum!

Had a fantastic meal in Mirci (chilli in Hindi). It's a vegetarian-only restaurant, but fantastic. Thanks to Efren for taking me there before! We had a couple of morning walks around the Jheel and Suzie got to try some Indian breakfast foods – Chole bhature. Imagine a flakey pancake and some curry and you're most of the way there!

We also took a stroll up to Canary Hill for the sunset. Unfortunately it was pretty cloudy so we didn't see the sun actually set, but Suzie did get an introduction into the life of a celebrity in India - must have had twenty photos taken of us by random people! We'd also decided to do a bit of home cooking. Chicken curry to be precise. Buying chickens in India is always an experience, so I thought Suzie should get to see it for herself. Unfortunately, to see these things you need to take your hands away from in front of your face ;-)

I'm not going to lie – the curry was a bit of a disaster. You see, when you buy chicken here, you buy a chicken. Not a chicken breast, not some wings or legs. A whole chicken. It's alive when you pick it. Of course, the swift separation of it's body and it's head tends to take care of that. Most people in India don't cook for just themselves. It's normally a big group of people. With that being the case, buying a whole chicken isn't an issue. I therefore asked for the smallest chicken the guy had. He picked one. Did his stuff, bagged it for me and off we went....

When we got home I looked at what we had. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a chick that we bought, but it can't have gotten through puberty, or whatever chickens go through, yet. If there was meat on it, I think it got washed off when I ran it under the tap! What was on there was ropey to say the least. Not our finest meal of the trip!

On Friday we caught the overnight bus to Kolkata. I have to say, this was easily the best bus journey of the whole trip. The bus was good. Comfy seats. The road, NH-2, is brand new, runs from Delhi to Kolkata and is quick. We did 400km in 8hrs, including getting out of H,bag and into Kolkata and a stop for food. That's lightspeed in India! The journey got us to Kolkata in 8.5hrs, so we arrived by 6am.

Amazingly our hotel let us check in there and then – brilliant. Shower, bit of a nap, then off for breakfast. Having done a lot of Kolkata on our first visit we had a lazy morning, followed by a great lunch in Bar-B-Q. Ignore the name, this place was really good Indian food. No idea where the name comes from!

Then it was IPL time. We met some of the other VSO volunteers and caught a taxi to Eden Gardens. The game was Kolkata Knight Riders vs Chennai Super Kings. Big names like Brett Lee, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Jacques Kallis on show!

Ridiculously they won't let you take cameras into the ground. 95% of Indians have mobile phones. Most phones now have 2-5 megapixel cameras. Pretending that no-one is taking photos is sticking your head in the sand. Unfortunately I had my camera with me. You'll have to leave the battery at the gate I'm told. With who? On that table over there. Will someone look after it? No. Awesome. Thanks. Can't I just promise not to use my camera? No. Stupid. Stupid IPL. Why do you not want me to take photos and advertise the events for you? Just dumb.

Anyway, rant over! Unfortunately the game wasn't a classic for the neutral. Brett Lee (playing for Kolkata) had an amazing game and after 4 overs Chennai had 9 runs. Not 90. 9. Nine. Ridiculous, I've seen England score faster in test matches! Anyway, they got to 120, which was probably 30-40 short of what they needed. Then about 5overs into Kolkata's reply the heavens opened and the match was abandoned. Kolkata winning on the D/L method.

So not the barnstorming game we'd hoped for on our last day of the holiday, but still a great experience. The crowd was great fun, especially the never-ending Mexican wave (8 loops, never seen anything like it. Probably would have been more, but there was a wicket which had everyone cheering!)

The next day Suzie's flight was early in the morning and, after a day spent in coffee shops checking emails, I got another overnight bus back to Hazaribag to get back for work on Monday morning. It was really bizarre trying to get back into the swing of work again - the whole holiday was an amazing experience, too many highlights to choose from!

So now it's back to the grind. The good thing is that I came back refreshed and full of ideas for the 2nd half of my placement. I've got 11 weeks until I'm back in the UK for Mr Paterson's wedding and I'm going to be really pushing Srijan in that time. We've got a load of really exciting new projects to work on and I'm really positive that we're going to make some good changes.

Hope everyone's well, wherever you are. Take care and see you soon.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Holiday pt 2 – Kathmandu and the Himalayas

I left the last blog post at a pretty low point. We'd just reached Kathmandu and had been sat in the back of a falling-apart old coach for 17 hours. We were tired. We were hot. I'm sure that I've looked better... definitely needed a shower. Ah, the joys of travelling, right?

We found a hotel and managed to restore a hint of respectability to our appearances. Unfortunately we didn't have much option but to head straight back out and try and organise our next steps – we needed to get to Pokhara the next day and start our trek as soon as possible.

I have a confession to make here. Normally when I go “travelling” I don't do luxury. I do things the way the locals do if I can. It's more fun. It's cheaper. It generally leads to more of those random experiences that make it all worthwhile. However. I refer you to the 17hrs we'd just spent on a coach. We were now left with two options:
  1. A 7hr coach journey starting the next day at 7am.
  2. A 25min flight leaving at 2.30pm
Yes, the flight cost almost 10 times the cost of the bus. Yes, it's cheating. Yes, it was bloody worth it!

After getting things organised, we had a quiet afternoon and then an absolutely fantastic meal in a Nepalese restaurant near our hotel. Well, the atmosphere and the starter was fantastic anyway – the main struggled to live up to that (much like my half-marathon run in August – peaked too soon.....). Oh, and seeing as she got so excited by the mention in the last post, I should point out that Kez funded this meal too. UK pounds go a bit further out here – so thanks again Kez!

With our morning blissfully free of coach journeys, the next day we headed into the “old town” part of Kathmandu. We saw some more temples (this is India after all) and lots of pigeons (felt like going to Trafalgar Square in the 90's!).

From there, it was time to grab our stuff and head to the airport, stopping en route to grab some cakes which made a fair few people in the airport jealous as we scoffed them down for a extremely unhealthy, but brilliantly tasty lunch!

Now, I've been on a lot of flights in a lot of countries. That's not meant as a boast, it's meant to show that I'm not exactly new to air travel and therefore have seen and experienced most things in an airport. However....

Our flight was called for boarding. We headed out into a bus. Nothing unusual about that. They hooked our baggage on with a trailer, which seemed kind of amusing (not sure why – it was actually pretty reassuring as we could see our bags!).Off we set, out towards, and then alongside, the runway. A couple of minutes later and we turn a corner to see a line of small prop planes. Cool I think, haven't been on one of these for a long time!

Then we drive round and past them. Hmmm. Not on those then. We're heading towards the runway again. We turn left, away from the airport and all the planes, running parallel to the runway again. And we keep going. I can see there's nothing ahead (except Kathmandu, which we can see a mile or so away). We get to the end of the runway, go past it, then turn right, down into a ditch below the level of the runway, along that the width of the runway and then appear back up on the far side. At this point, considering we're (allegedly) in an airport, I can no longer see a single plane. We've been driving for 10 minutes and are now driving back in the direction we've come from, but on the far side of the runway. We keep going. Past the point we started, the airport drifting past again to our right. After 20 minutes I'm beginning to wonder if we'd have spent less time in a coach if we'd just driven to Pokhara....!

Eventually we reach our plane. It's tiny. Two rows of seats, one on each side of the plane, maybe 20 seats? Fantastic. I can see the cockpit from my seat. The 8-yr old me suddenly reappears and I get ridiculously excited by this! The cabin isn't pressurised, so they have to give you sweets to stop your ears popping – awesome!

The flight was a bit bumpy, but 25mins is 25mins and you can't argue with that. Suzie might disagree – don't think she enjoyed it too much :-)

When we reached Pokhara we were expecting to be met at the airport by our guide (confusingly called Susan – probably not how he spells it, but there you go). Instead, Suzie somehow spotted a taxi driver with a piece of paper the size of a business card with “Timothy” on it. Eyes of a hawk, obviously.

We were a bit worried as we'd had a hotel booked for us and had done no research. We shouldn't have worried. The hotel was perfectly fine – newly built and just what we wanted. We dropped our bags and set out to explore.

Pokhara is in the foothills of the Himalayas. Now, most people think of Everest when they think of the Himalayas. Don't. Pokhara is nowhere near Everest. Apparently these Himalayas are quite big....What Pokhara is near though, is Annapurna. Annapurna I is the 10th highest peak in the world, measuring over 8000m and we were going to climb it.....

Yeah right! Not only do you need to have a ridiculous amount of training (and equipment) to do something like that, but also while Annapurna might be 800m shorter, it's harder to climb than Everest. Lower success rates, higher fatality rates. We were only going to Base Camp (a still-not-shabby 4100m up).

So, Pokhara, beautiful setting, by a lake. Lots of restaurants and bars, not much else! Really nice atmosphere though. We had some great food and a couple of beers anticipating not too much of that over the next 8 days!

The next morning off we set. 10 years ago you'd have actually had to walk from Pokhara, but now there's a lovely twisty road through the mountains – fantastic scenery. After 1.5hrs we reached the starting point of the trail. One last chai before we set off, much to the amusement of some local women!

There is a point on the Annapurna trail called Poon Hill. It's not actually on the main climb to Base Camp, but off on a side loop. It's famous for it's sunrises and I do like a good sunrise, so that was on our itinerary. It's also only 8-9hrs walk from the starting point, so Day 1 was a leisurely 3 hr walk. Felt a bit lazy to be honest! Thankfully it was a wonderful place to stop, by some waterfalls, so we got a bit of photo opportunities. We also had the first (of many) Dal Bhats. Literally this means “Lentils and Rice” and for most Nepalese they eat it a couple of times a day. I've got to say, it's pretty good, but I like a bit more variety in my meals!

Next morning started with a beast of a climb. 3000 steps apparently! Beginning to wonder if this is such a good idea.... Later that afternoon we arrived in Ghorepani, which was to be important for a couple of reasons on this trip.

First, it was where our love affair with German Bakeries began. For some reason, the Nepalese have decided that German Bakeries are what people want (much to the consternation of some Austrians we met later on!). We decided to give it a go – Strudel time! From that point onwards every town was basically rated by the availability and the quality of their German baked goods. Obsessed with food? Moi? ;-)

Secondly, our guide had to leave us at this point. He said there had been a death in his family. Sometimes you have to be skeptical of this sort of thing, but I genuinely believed him – if he was lying he's wasted as a guide and should go into acting. This did leave us in a bit of an awkward position though – we'd paid for an English-speaking guide and a porter. Susan spoke good English, Lal, our porter, didn't. Oh, and he was partially-sighted too. Excellent.

I should say for the record here that Lal did an excellent job, considering it's not one he's trained for. We only got lost once and then not really (Suzie and I rushed on ahead and went the wrong way – difficult to blame him!). He got us to Base Camp and did it with a smile on his face. Of course at the time point we weren't sure how things would turn out....

The next morning we woke at 4.30 to catch the sunrise. It's a 45min walk from Ghorepani to Poon Hill. The walk takes you to about 3100m above sea level. Unfortunately Suzie felt a little bit unwell on the way up – we weren't sure if it was mountain sickness or not. Would we be able to make it to Base Camp – another 1000m up?

I mentioned German Bakeries earlier. Obviously they won't be everyone's cup of tea. What will be? Literally, a cup of tea at 5am when you're standing in the cold waiting for sunrise. The guys running the tea stall must make a fortune. Rs80 for a cup of tea – probably cost them Rs5 per cup, if that!

Sunrise was spectacular though. Some days it's apparently cloudy. Not for us. Perfect visibility and truly spectacular. Pics of this sort of thing never come out the way you want, but I hope some of these give an idea of what it was like.

The next 3 days went a bit like this:

Day 3 – walked for a stupidly long time. Everyone we told what we were doing said “really?” with a look of disbelief, but we had a timetable to keep to and we made it. Arrived in the guesthouse at 4pm. At 4.05pm the heavens opened – timing! German Bakery rating – 3/5, good strudel, rubbish choc cake. Two Israeli girls in Guesthouse look like they're having as much fun as a Liverpool fan at a Premier League Champions party....

Day 4 – walk up a slope, down a slope, up a slope, down a slope, up a slope, down a slope, repeat until you can see Macchupuchre peak. Stop. Be in awe. Spend evening listening to French couple singing Nepalese songs they've been taught by their guides. No German Bakery :-( Israeli girls are following us. Still look miserable.

Day 5 – Head up valley to Macchupuchre Base Camp (3700m). Israeli girls are only other people in our guesthouse – what did we do to deserve this?

MBC is just below the snow-line. It's therefore pretty cold. We were there by midday, which meant a lot of sitting around, but heading up to ABC wasn't on the cards as we didn't fancy staying there for the night (even colder!) and we were still worried Suzie might get hit by altitude sickness again. At that point she was ok, but no point risking it!

So at 4.20am we're up again. It's bitterly cold, but off we set. It's 1.5hrs to ABC and we want to be there for sunrise. After 15mins we're walking on snow, up a valley. It's pitch black initially, but slowly, as the sun rises behind us, the mountains to our right begin to be bathed in a gorgeous pink light. It's spectacular. Honestly, my photos can't and won't do it justice. We later heard of someone who's been to Base Camp eight times before. He said it blew him away this particular morning.

I know I joke and brush over a few things, but I can honestly say this will be remembered as one of the most spectacular events in my life. That's not something you get to say everyday. Truly breathtaking.

We got to Base Camp and set up to take photos. We'd been there for about 10mins when suddenly Suzie felt ill again, so rather than take any risks we headed back to MBC for a big bowl of porridge and some hot chocolate! Celebrated with some Toblerone. Swiss Alp chocolate eaten in the Himalayas. Perfect!

From there it was back down the mountain. I say down - considering our aim was to descend there was an awful lot of climbing! Met some guys who had been to Everest Base Camp – one of them did it wearing a pair of plimsoles. Loon. Australian, obviously.

On our penultimate day we stopped in Jinju, which has some hot springs, which definitely soothed some aches and pains! Then it was to Pokhara and a well deserved beer and some nachos. And a hunt for a German Bakery ;-)

Originally we'd been thinking of heading to Chitwan National Park from Pohara and spending a day there before heading back towards Hazaribag, but we were a bit knackered to be honest and thought a couple of relaxing days in Pokara would be good for us (you know, a holiday or something!).

So if you want to read about Pokhara, Suzie's time in Hazaribag, or our trip to see an IPL match in Kolkata, you'll have to read the next post. Congratulations if you managed to read all of this one. Bit of a mammoth one....not unlike an 8-day trek in the Himalayas or something!