Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nepal: A Tale of Buses, Bakeries and Bodily Functions

Warning: This blog post contains references to some events that may disgust some people (Carl and Ronnie should be fine as you both seem obsessed with my toilet habits...). I fully advise not reading this while eating your dinner!

A few weeks ago, my friend Efren, a fellow volunteer, told me he was going on a trip to Nepal for a couple of days and did I want to come along. I thought it would be a good first trip in India, especially having someone to go along with, so I said yes. Obviously this was the wrong answer....

18:00 – I make my way over to Efren's house to meet him and Mila (another volunteer) where we have dinner. Our bus is due to depart at 10pm

21:00 – We are just about to head for the bus station when I realise the battery for my camera is still in the charger back in my flat. I peg it back to my place on Efren's bike and rush back with time to spare. Ironically at this point I'm thinking the trip could have been a disaster if I hadn't remembered....

22:00 – The bus leaves Hazaribagh, basically on time, it's supposed to be a 6-7hr journey to Patna.

06:00 – Only an hour or so late, we make it to Patna. It's freezing and we appear to be in the biggest coach park in the world. All I can see in every direction is buses. There are about 20 rickshaw drivers trying to overcharge us all at once. Amazingly, economic theory doesn't apply to rickshaw drivers....the fact that there are 20 of them and only three of us doesn't result in them lowering their price to try and win our business – they all seem to feel that a tourist is only worth taking if they can screw them out of some money....
Bus hrs: 8; Toilet breaks: 0

06:30 – Some haggling and a rickshaw journey later we're at the train station. Not because we need a train, but because we're hoping to get some breakfast. No such luck – everything appears to be shut. We grab a coffee and head to the 1st class waiting room (the one benefit to being white – no-one suspects you of not having enough money to be in there!) where we make use of toilet facilities. Not normally a detail I would add to a blog post, but my reasons will become clear as we go on...
Bus hrs: 8; Toilet breaks: 1

07:30 – Back to the bus station and on to a new bus, this time heading to Rauxal. This is the Nepalese/Indian border where we intend to cross. Estimated time – 7hrs.

13:00 – We stop for some lunch. I go to get off the bus. My mobile is no longer in my pocket. I know I had it at the start of this bus trip, so I figure it fell out of my pocket. After roughly 30mins of searching the bus, we have to finally admit someone has picked it up and taken it. Bugger. I'm beginning to sense this trip may not go so well....

18:00 – We arrive at Raxaul a few hours late. More obnoxious rickshaw drivers. Never mind, we get to the Indian immigration office, get our passports stamped for exit and head on to the Nepalese side. Here we're surprised to get charged $30 for our visa – lack of investigation on our part in fairness. Also, because we're quite late we have to wait a while for them to open the office again and then fill in all the forms by candle-light as the Nepalese government has imposed 12-hr power cuts due to the excessive cold weather....
Bus hrs: 19.5; Toilet breaks: 1; Stolen mobile phones: 1

19:00 – Sat in the ticket office, we manage to get the last three seats on a bus to Kathmandu. This is due to take us 8hrs and leave at 8pm. When it arrives, we're crammed onto the back seat of the bus (five seats – six people). I'm by the window, which doesn't shut properly so I have a constant freezing wind swirling round me the entire journey. Sleep is limited to say the least.

07:00 – Bus again takes a couple of hours longer than intended, but we eventually reach Kathmandu. Plus, it just pulls up on the side of the road and refuses to go to the bus station. Cue a lot of angry passengers, but it's difficult to make a driver do something if they don't want to. After some angry exchanges we force the mate of the bus (guy who handles the money) to pay for our mini-bus trip to the bus station.
Bus hrs: 31.5; Toilet breaks: 1; Stolen mobile phones: 1

Luckily Nepal is a bit more alive in the morning than India, so we get some breakfast and coffee. It's pretty good, but very cold! We have a bit of a wander round to try and find an Internet cafe and work out where we are and where we'll stay tonight. This is when we notice the bakeries.....Nepal loves baking! They are literally everywhere, selling cakes, doughnuts, sweets, it's like mini-England! I feel happy – Nepal is going to be good :-)

12:00 – After a bit of confusion we manage to get to an Internet cafe, work out where we need to be (Thamel – an area of Kathmandu) and get there. We find a cheap hotel and check in, have showers, then head off out in search of the best way to get to Dhulikhel – our trip for the afternoon.

14:00 - Stop at a street vendor for food – have some Momo, which is a Nepalese dumpling and is delicious. All memories of the bus journey hell is being irradicated by the Nepalese food ;-)

16:00 – Reach Dhulikhel, which is basically a hill-top about 1.5hrs from Kathmandu centre. It's got some good views, although they're slightly spoiled by the mist today. We sit around in a nice hotel having coffee (which takes ages to come and is over-priced, but never mind!) and admiring the location. Then manage to time our bus back perfectly and head back to Kathmandu.

It's around this time that I start feeling a little bit stomach is cramping a fair bit and the bus journey isn't too much fun.

20:00 – Back in the hotel and I figure I just need the toilet. It's not pleasant, I'll be honest, but I feel a lot better for it and we head out for dinner.
Bus hrs: 35.5; Toilet breaks: 2; Stolen mobile phones: 1

21:00 - I decide to play safe and just order some chicken soup with plain rice. It's very good food in fairness and the waitress is an amazing girl. She's probably 16, lost both her parents before she was 12mths and grew up with her grandmother. She speaks English, Hindi, Nepalese, Spanish and some Japanese. She's learning how to run her grandmother's hotel, has hiked to Base Camp and wasn't even working that night – she was just stopping by to help out! After dinner, back to the hotel looking forward to our first night in a proper bed for a while....

01:00 – Uh oh. It's 1am, I'm wide awake with more intense stomach cramps. Toilet required. Squat toilets and no toilet paper are not a good combination when you have diarrhoea, just in case you were wondering....
Bus hrs: 35.5; Toilet breaks: 3; Stolen mobile phones: 1

06:00 – See 1am entry
Bus hrs: 35.5; Toilet breaks: 4; Stolen mobile phones: 1

09:00 – I wake up feeling like death. There's no way I'm going out today. Efren and Mila, bless them, head out and get me some bananas, rehydration salts and bread rolls. I spend the majority of the day in this point I would like to point out that the Kindle is the greatest invention of mankind!

15:00 – I'm feeling a bit better and determined to at least make it out of the hotel. Toilet break confirms I'm still ill though.....
Bus hrs: 35.5; Toilet breaks: 5; Stolen mobile phones: 1

I bump into Efren and Mila randomly out the front of the hotel and we go to a small cafe they've found. I then go to the Gardens nearby, which are gorgeous. I take some pics to make myself feel better. Back to the hotel – can't face having any dinner.

21:00 – Argh!
Bus hrs: 35.5; Toilet breaks: 6; Stolen mobile phones: 1

03:00 – Same old story....
Bus hrs: 35.5; Toilet breaks: 7; Stolen mobile phones: 1

08:00 – Efren and Mila head out for some breakfast, while I manage to get out of bed and have a hot shower. I'm still not feeling good though, so we phone the VSO doctor and he gives us the names of some medicines to get. I take those and then buy myself a Nepalese jumper which is made of Yak's wool or something – it's like a great big hug :-) Feel a lot better now....

14:00 – Have some lunch with Efren and Mila before they head off to Nuwakot. They say they'll be back around 8/9pm. I set up shop for the afternoon in a cafe. Kindle paying for itself in the last two days!

20:00 – Back to the hotel to wait for the guys to return so we can go for dinner (no mobile so I can't contact them remember!)
Bus hrs: 35.5; Toilet breaks: 8; Stolen mobile phones: 1

23:00 – Wake up....I fell asleep waiting. Still no sign of them! Obviously can't contact them, but I'm pretty hungry so I head out. No option but a street vendor selling omelettes in a bun, considering the last couple of days I'm nervous, but don't have an option!

08:00 – The guys didn't come back in the night. This concerns me. I'm supposed to back in the office on Wednesday and it took us 36hrs to get here. We were meant to leave Monday morning....stomach confirms still not 100% better, but I feel good myself, so it's off to get some breakfast, leaving Efren and Mila a note to let them know where to find me....
Bus hrs: 35.5; Toilet breaks: 9; Stolen mobile phones: 1

12:00 – Still no sign of them, I begin checking in with the hotel every 30 mins as I walk around Kathmandu....
...which, by the way, is a pretty nice city (or the Thamel area is). It's the tourist sector, so it's all the kind of shops you expect, but there are lots of nice cafes, restaurants and clothes shops. The people are lovely and friendly and I actually did enjoy just walking around there!

15:30 – They've been back at the hotel! They're in a cafe round the corner. I meet them – they didn't make it to Nuwakot until 8.30pm on Sunday, so there was no chance of getting back last night. They didn't exactly rush back this morning either though. I figure there's no chance of us getting back by Wednesday now, but never mind...

17:00 – Taxi to the bus station. Efren thinks it's going to be quicker taking a different route this time... so we're getting a bus to Pokhara instead of Raxaul. Our bus is due to leave at 7pm and arrive around 4am.

07:00 – Quelle surpris – we're a few hours late! Plus, I have severe stomach cramps....again! Public toilets in India aren't fun – but I don't have a choice....unfortunately though – nothing! I appear to have gone to the other extreme now, although given the journey ahead I think this is probably the better option! I try again 20mins later, but nothing doing then either....I do feel a lot better though, so we grab a bit of tea for breakfast and then jump straight onto another bus to Gurakhpur, this is supposed to be 6-7hrs....
Bus hrs: 45.5; Toilet breaks: 11; Stolen mobile phones: 1

16:00 - ….and of course takes a lot longer! We finally make the border of India almost 24hrs after leaving Kathmandu. We were hoping to be almost home by now – but we're not even close! After a 2km walk to the actual border (more rickshaw drivers refusing to give us a fair price...) we almost have a disaster at the Indian Immigration office when they ask for our registration documents, which we don't have....but luckily they decide to let us through. A quick bit of food and it's onto, yep, you guessed it, another bus...
Bus hrs: 54; Toilet breaks: 9; Stolen mobile phones: 1

21:00 – We arrive at Gorakhpur train station, but it's too late to buy normal tickets. Plus, there isn't a train to Koderma as we had hoped (Efren's plan – now I know why I prefer to organise my own travelling, or at least have a say in it!). So we have to get an overnight train to Hajipur. It's due to leave at 10:20pm....
Bus hrs: 59; Toilet breaks: 9; Stolen mobile phones: 1

00:20 – Two hours late and our train finally leaves, it's about 6hrs to Hajipur....

05:30 – We actually make up some lost time here (wonders will never cease!). When we get out of the station it's a short 10min taxi journey to Patna (yes, scene of the mobile loss...) and then we have another bus journey back to Hazaribagh.
Bus hrs: 68; Toilet breaks: 9; Stolen mobile phones: 1; Train journies: 5hrs

16:00 – Finally, finally, finally we get back to Hazaribag. 3 full days of bus journeys. In 7 days of “holiday” I spent over 3.5 of them travelling to and from Kathmandu and what felt like an equivalent amount of time on the toilet or in bed once I got there! 
Bus hrs: 78; Toilet breaks: 9; Stolen mobile phones: 1; Train journies: 5hrs

I have to say though, there were some amazing moments – little snippets of great scenery and some lovely people. I'm just glad I'm going to go back to Nepal in April with Suzie as I think to leave it like that would not be doing it justice....  

If anyone is interested in seeing the route we took - here is a map. Photos will be on Flickr soon....

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Twitter and The Other Blog

Ok, this may be the least interesting blog post I write....or it will be the most interesting - guess that depends on your point of view (....and the award for most obvious sentence of 2011 goes to.....)

This blog is obviously about my time in India. You've read the posts - you know the deal. The thing is, I have a second blog. It's not that I'm trying to keep it secret (kind of the opposite idea really), but it's not strictly related to being in India. It's my thoughts on consulting, social entrepreneurship and various other things loosely related to my professional life. *Yawn....*

Or at least, that's the reaction I was kind of expecting from people if they read it, but apparently some people are vaguely interested in this, particularly the stuff relating to how I'm working out here. I'm hoping to post more regularly on there, so I'm going to post the link here:

If you're interested, have a look. If you want me to post it to Facebook as well let me know! I won't do that unless a number of people request it. Either drop me an email or leave a comment somewhere, or like this on Facebook. I don't care how you do it. But I won't link it to my Facebook account unless people request it as I don't want to inundate everyone with blog posts!

Vaguely related to that is my twitter account:

Feel free to follow me if tweeting is your thing. There's no theme to the posts. Some of it will be about India, some is my general ramblings, lots of interesting (to me!) articles on IT, social entrepreneurships, etc. If you don't like it, unfollow me - simples. If you follow me I'll even follow you back - aren't I nice?

That's all for now - I'm off to Nepal tonight, bus leaves at 10pm, so won't be around much over the next 5 days. Have a good weekend everyone - see you on the other side....

Friday, January 14, 2011

A day in the life (India Edition)

Hi all, I hope that this finds you having a good start to 2011? Let's face it – we won the Ashes so as far as national sport goes it's already better than 2010, right?!?

I'm beginning to settle into a bit of a routine over here now, so I thought I'd try and give you all a bit of an insight into how a typical day in India goes for me....

05:00 – The Mosque Disco (as I've termed it) kicks off, waking me from my slumber. Damnit.

05:45 – Mosque Disco finally stops and I can grab another precious hour of sleep

07:00 – Roll out of bed and, if I'm feeling energetic I put my running gear and head out the door. Inevitably the sight of a white man running down the street attracts a few looks. Some people even try and start conversations during my run. Obviously the thought that I might actually not want to stop during my exercise and say hello to a random stranger doesn't occur to them....anyway, 1 or 2 laps of the Jheel (map for those of you interested in such things) and then back to the flat.

07:45 – No kettle, so it's water in a saucepan on the gas hob while I jump into the “shower”. I still think of it as having a shower, although whether throwing a bucket of water over yourself on your balcony counts, I'll leave to you to decide...

07:50 – Get dressed, make a coffee (powdered milk – nice) and some brekkie. Either porridge or toast. Nice and simple. Washing up depends on whether the water has run out yet or not....

08:00 – 09:00 – Sweep the floor, do some Hindi practice on the laptop, or listen to some music and read. If it's laundry day, I have to do that out on the balcony with a couple of buckets of washing machines here...

09:00 – Walk the 2mins down the road to the office. Inevitably stopped by or joined on my walk by someone random who wants to say hello! Spend the rest of the morning normally in the office.

13:00 – Head out for lunch, normally I go back to the flat and make a sandwich or something, but sometimes I head to the Chowk (square) and grab some samosas and sauce (yummy!), then it's back to the office

17:30 – 18:00 – leave the office. Head down to the main crossroads to get some veg for dinner. It's so cheap here. I can get two big bags of veg for about £1.50 (even with this alleged onion shortage!). If I need something a bit more unusual, like porridge, honey, jam etc. I have to head all the way into town. I also don't like the fruit stalls here, so I tend to get that in other areas too.

18:30 – Back to the flat. It's pitch black outside now, so not a lot to be done – no chance of an evening run unfortunately! We get a fair few power outages as well during the evenings, so a good supply of candles comes in useful here (or a wind-up torch – thanks mum!).

19:00 – Cook some dinner. I've been trying my hand at Indian flatbreads, which are actually pretty easy to make. Or, at least, I haven't completely ruined them so far! I've also got quite good at apple fritters and pancakes for a bit of dessert and my aubergine curry is coming on quite well!

20:00 – Watch a film or something with dinner, maybe do some reading, write in my journal or something like that. Thankfully my phone allows me to get online too – so I can use Skype and things like that to talk to people after work.

22:00 – Off to bed – after all, I'll undoubtedly be woken up at 5am by the Mosque Disco tomorrow....

It's not a glamorous life – but I'm enjoying it! It's very chilled and slow, which is obviously nothing like how I normally live, but that's ok (at the moment!). I'm enjoying the lack of stress in the job and the way everyone is so friendly.

This weekend I'm heading back to Ranchi for a bit of a party on Sunday, then on Thursday it's the first proper trip. A few of us are heading North up to Nepal. The plan is to head into Nepal from the South and then cut East before coming back down into India. A nice 5 day trip...obviously I promise to take lots of photos and bore you all to death with them on my return!

Have a good weekend everyone....


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Village Visit and NYE

Happy New Year all!

I hope you all had fun-filled (and probably drunken!) NYEs. Thank you to everyone for your messages – really enjoyed reading them all! It's been about a week since my last post, so thought I'd bring you all up to date on my New Year's and other adventures!

On the 30th December I went on a day trip to a few villages that my organisation works with - Srijan Foundation work to promote social development by helping people to help themselves. It's about helping people to understand what they're entitled to ask for, and what help is already out there. They do a lot of work with children and education. No website yet (it's coming, don't worry!).

Anyway, we headed off, about 40mins on a bike (don't worry mum – I had a helmet!). You can see the pictures here on Flickr. I'm not going to go into too many details, I think they speak for themselves, but I do want to talk about one particular photo....this one.

Jharkhand (the state of India I'm in) is the most mineral rich state in India. It has 80% of the nations valuable minerals. It's also one of the poorest states – how come? Mainly lack of development, corruption and the normal things that developing nations have to deal with – lack of infrastructure, etc. It is also home to some of the poorest people in India. Many of them are illiterate, if they do go to school they leave early, marry early (sometimes as young as 14/15) and spend their entire lives in a state of poverty.

This is exacerbated by the fact that as mines close, they leave a hole in the local employment ecosystem. The land is un-farmable, meaning that the locals resort to illegal mining. They have to withdraw their children from school as they cannot afford it and the children go to work in the mines.

After extracting the coal, they have to transport it. This is done by loading the coal, up to 200kg at a time, onto a bike, like the people in this photo. They then push it 20-30km along undulating roads to the markets, where they sell it. It's a day-to-day existence. If they can't work, they can't eat.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The children need to work as early as possible to help support the family, so they are taken out of school with little or no completed education. This means that even if they wanted to, they have no skills to do anything other than work in the coal mines. There is no other industry available anyway.

Srijan has just completed a 1yr pilot in a nearby town of Kujju. They have created Alternative schools for children, they are emphasising the importance of education, setting up Self-Help Groups for money-lending amongst the community and providing access to alternative forms of income. It's slow progress, but it is progress and this year 11 children have returned to the government school and are resuming education. And that is exactly why organisations like Srijan are important, and why I'm doing what I'm doing out here.

Right, that's enough serious stuff! New Year's Eve....random. I was supposed to be going to a place called Betla, which has a National Park. But on the Friday my boss decided “No”, as it was “too dangerous”. You see, this area has a high level of Naxalite activity and he was concerned about me heading off to that area.

Now, I know all of you are well read-up on Indian political movements, but in case you missed the latest documentary on Channel 4, the Naxalites are a Maoist anti-government group, who do things like blow up train tracks etc. They have no history of targetting Westerners (not too many here to target I guess!), but better safe than sorry!

So instead, I got on a bus for 3hrs and headed to Ranchi, the state capital. There I met up with the Philiopinos again and we had a bit of a party in one of their friend's house. It was great fun, lots of good food and conversation. We had fireworks at midnight too, Indian style – pics will be on Flickr soon if you're bothered!

One thing I should add – if you've ever tried to have a BBQ, I recommend charcoal over pure coal. Apparently it lights a bit easier....

I'm hoping to start proper Hindi lessons at last in the next week or so. I can get by with my limited vocabulary, but looking forward to learning some proper grammar so I can start having proper conversations!

Still getting woken up at 5am too - for those who think I might be exaggerating check out this video. Sorry the image is rubbish, but you get the idea!

So I think that will do for now. It's a black-out over here this evening, so I'm typing this by candle-light!

Oh, and if it's your kind of thing – follow me on Twitter – links on the right....