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!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Holiday Pt1 - Kolkata and Darjeeling

I'd been looking forward to 16th April for quite a while. Not only was I going to get a chance to avenge my disastrous Nepal trip from January, I'd also get to see Kolkata and Darjeeling, two new areas of India. I was also planning a trek in the Himalayas. It was going to be awesome.

Oh yeah, and I almost forgot.....Suzie was due to land in Kolkata that morning ;-) Actually, unsurprisingly this was really at the top of my list of things to be happy about. Which is why I almost had a heart-attack on the morning of the 16th....

You see, I'd travelled to Kolkata the day before and was staying at the house of one of the other VSOs (thanks Stanley!). I got up at 6am and started to get ready. My plan was to head off before 7am as it was quite a bus journey to get to the airport. I thought “I'll just check on her plane, make sure it's not delayed”. I log on, pull up the details for her flight.

Shit (sorry mum!). Shit shit shit.

Landed? LANDED? How the …..? What the hell? What time is it? Have time differences messed me up? How can it have landed already? My brain is racing. I'm wondering how I've managed to screw this up. I can just imagine poor Suzie sitting, waiting at Kolkata airport, wondering what the hell is happening.

Luckily then I start to calm down and think rationally. I work out that unless her flight was on Concorde it couldn't have landed when the website was saying. Something is wrong here. I decide to start again on the website. That's when I realise that the default date for the search for flights is the day before. Let me repeat that. The default option for checking flight arrivals is for flights on the previous day. Fricking useful that is.

So I'm back on time! Anyway, after possibly the most cost effective bus-ride in history (Rs10 – about 15p for roughly 1hr 15mins) I managed to arrive at Kolkata Airport. Just in time too. Suzie's flight actually did land early. But luckily only by 30mins!

The cab journey to our hotel was amusing. No one knew where it was. It's rated (correctly in my opinion) as number one for guesthouses in Kolkata on TripAdvisor, but even people working in businesses less than 50m away had no idea about it! When we finally got there it was worth it though. The Bodhi Tree, for anyone interested, is an amazing place. So chilled and lovely. We also got an amazing room. More like a suite than anything. Brilliant value.

...except, it wasn't our room! Even though we filled in registration forms on arrival, they'd put us in someone else's room! Our room, when they realised the mistake and moved us, was much more modest. Still, it was nice for a while!

Suze was obviously knackered from her travelling, so we spent the rest of the day having a bit of a walk in the nearby area. We kept on being directed to a particular restaurant, which kept on being “just up here”, but we never found it. Instead, we found a lovely little fish restaurant (fish! - you'll realise quite quickly that this was a good food holiday!) and then headed into central Kolkata for dinner in the evening to a restaurant with a roof terrace. Perfect!

On Sunday we had the day in Kolkata. We went to the Kalighat Temple, which was pretty cool, although fairly similar to other temples in India to be honest. Then we did the obligatory Indian bus journey and got off at the Victoria Memorial.

This is a pretty awesome building. And it was cool inside. In fact, I think the coolness and the shade in the gardens are two of it's best attributes :-) In fairness, some of the paintings inside are pretty good too and there's a nice bit of history on Kolkata too.

From there we had a bit of a stroll onto Park St, which is a bit of a tourist mecca and then grabbed a quick dinner. Then it was off to the train station. Next stop Darjeeling!

Trains in India can be great fun. They can also be a pain. This one was a bit of a mix. We'd decided to splurge and go first class. For that you get a bigger bed and a lockable door. That's about it. Unfortunately we had to share our cabin with two Indians, but they got off in the small hours of the morning, which thankfully meant that the staring at the two white people was interrupted and we could watch India roll by in peace.

The train arrived in Siliguri around 9am. Unfortunately, as the name suggests, Siliguri is not Darjeeling. In fact it's a 3hr jeep ride away. Yes. Jeep. Darjeeling is up in the hills, way up high. We'd also managed to arrive on the day of the Indian general elections, as well as the main route to Darjeeling being destroyed by a landslide. Awesome.

We'd managed to get a jeep eventually and off we set. Suzie and I crammed into the front passenger seat, another 8 or so in the back. Loads of room then! In true Tim style we turned up with a room booked but no idea how to get to the hotel, but got lucky as someone in the garage knew it and walked us up there. Never would have found it otherwise!

The hotel – Revolver, is a Beatles themed hotel with 5 rooms. One for each Beatle. And some guy called Brian. I'm a Stones man myself so didn't really get that bit – their manager or someone, but it was pretty well done. The host is awesome and they do great coffee :-) The only downside is waking up to find Ringo Starr staring at you....

I'd been told by a lot of people that Darjeeling is very touristy. I never really found that to be honest. No more so than a lot of other places in India anyway. It's very relaxed though and there are some lovely sights and places to get food. We had a walk around, Suzie tried some Gol Gappe and we had some Dosa for lunch – getting into the local foods!

The next day saw us set off to the Tea Plantation. Or, at least, we tried to. First, we tried to get some pakora and bhaji for a packed lunch. Unfortunately, bhajji is different to the bhaji as we know it. Bhajji (two “J”'s) means curry. Yep, we got a bag of pakora and a plate of veg curry! Oops! Luckily I like food, even curry at 9am :-)

Then, after walking for about 30 mins, we stopped to ask someone how much further to the plantation. The man pointed back up the hill, in the direction we'd come from, 10-15mins he said. Doh!

When we finally reached the plantation the tour was nice, but unfortunately due to the previously mentioned elections, no picking had happened the day before, so half of the plant wasn't in action (tea-picking is a two day process – the leaves are dried overnight)! Just outside the plantation though is a little cafe where a lovely and extremely enthusiastic woman gives a bit of a chat and a cup of tea – who could say no to that!?!

Normally I'm a little sceptical of this stuff, but I have to say, the 5 second tea demo was impressive. Take one pan of boiling water. Add a handful of tea leaves. Leave 5 seconds. Pour via sieve into bowl. Result? Perfectly brewed tea. Tasty too! I've bought some, but I'm not promising there'll be any left by the time I get back I'm afraid! Want to get hold of some? Super Fine Tippy Golden Flower Orange Pico 1 is the stuff you need!

From there, it's a short trip to Darjeeling zoo. I know what you're thinking – seen one zoo, seen them all. But this one has Red Pandas. And Snow Leopards. That's enough for me alone!

The Red Pandas were awesome. They've got a huge enclosure and were running around all over the place – too fast often to get a good pic in fact! The big cats weren't quite as good – too hot and in cages, but overall it's a pretty good zoo.

From the zoo, after a detour to the shrubbery (and about 15mins of Monty Python impressions), we decided to go for the sunset at the Windarmere hotel, famed for it's sunsets according to the Lonely Planet. Or not. Not sure how we invented that bit of information, but invent it we did! We sat in a bar that resembled everyone's nan's house with no views of the sunset at all! Had a great meal that night though (thanks Kez!) in Glenary's.

On the advice of our hotel owner, we checked out the next day and headed back to Siliguri so that we could get the overnight bus to Kathmandu. We'd been told to try and get a “Volvo” or tourist bus. Thus started one of the longest journeys of our lives....

We took another jeep from Darjeeling back to Siliguri – 3 hrs. We then took a rickshaw to the bus stand – 5 mins. Sat in the taxi waiting for it to fill up for 1hr in the afternoon heat. We took a shared taxi to the border – 1 hr. Nepal stamp in the passport! At the bus stand we were told there were no places on the Volvo buses left. Public buses only until tomorrow. Bugger.

Public buses are great. They're cheap. You feel like you're doing “proper” travelling. There's livestock, bags of grain around your ankles, etc. It's fun. For about 1hr. Unfortunately, Darjeeling is nowhere near Kathmandu. In fact, it's about 17hrs from being somewhere near. Getting on a bus, on rubbish roads, at 4pm and not getting off until 7am the next day is not a fun experience. Let's leave it at that. Never has a cold shower in a pretty rubbish hotel room seemed so appealing!

Ok, I'm going to leave it there. Stay tuned for the second installment - Nepal, Kathmandu and the Himalayas! If you can't bear to wait, you can sneak a peak at the Flickr pics - they're already online!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ram Navami

Ok, so the good news is – I'm not dead. And I haven't even been laid up in hospital this time being interviewed by local camera crews. No, the reason for the radio silence over the last few weeks is that I've had a holiday. A lovely, lovely, long holiday. What's this, I hear you ask? Holidays? Fun? Isn't this voluteering thing about seriousness and hard-work? Well yes it is, but it's about seeing some of the world and not working 6-day weeks for a year too. So there.

But first, something completely different. In mid-April there was a festival in Hazaribag. That in itself is not that unusual. Every couple of weeks there's a puja or something similar. But this one was a bit different. It's called Ram Navami and I want to give you a bit of a description....

I knew something was coming up the weekend before to be honest – most of the time the view from my balcony doesn't look like something out of Disney World, but all of a sudden all of these appeared:

To be honest, it was pretty cool. I think they were pretty much all there by Sunday. On Tuesday there was quite a crowd, and a stage, so I decided to wander down and take a look. Obviously I got the inevitable stares and questions, but it seemed like pretty much the whole neighbourhood was out to see what turned into basically a version of “Hazaribag's Got Talent” (I assume, having never actually watched a whole episode, but there you go....

There was lots of dancing, there was acting, singing, lots of laughter. For me the stars were a group of 4 lads who were probably about 16-17 and who did an entire dance act. Very professional they were. Simon Cowell will probably sign them up. Most disturbing was a girl (?), probably 18ish, who looked too tall and man-like to be a girl, dancing in what seemed to be a very provocative way for India. At first I thought it was a man in drag, but that seems unlikely in general out here, and no-one was laughing. Luckily the giggle loop was avoided and I didn't embarrass myself.

I'd assumed that was going on across Hazaribag, but apparently not. In fact, the actual festival was on Wednesday. At around 8pm, myself and one of my colleagues walked into town. There were police everywhere. Unusual. There were also “volunteer policeman”. Allow me to compare and contrast the UK vs. India approach to volunteer law enforcement. I feel able to do this as my friend Sam is a volunteer policeman in London (good on him, too!).

In the UK you are packed off on a full training course. You must learn the law from textbooks. You are given a full uniform (complete with helmet!). In short, everything is very official and organised. In India, you turn up with your weapon of choice (I saw a number of hockey sticks) and wander round threatening anyone who looks like they might cause trouble. I wish I was joking.

So, Ram Navami then. We walk around town a bit, there are a fair few people there, mainly sitting by the sides of the road and amusing themselves. There are food stalls everywhere and people milling around. We see a huge float get pulled past with lots of people dancing around it. I begin to assume this is going to be a standard parade.

I could not have been more wrong....

We come across a rather large crowd by another float. This time there is a viewing platform for the dignitaries. My colleague decides that being white qualifies me for this and the armed-policeman thankfully agrees. We climb the stairs to the top of the platform, where I see something I hadn't really been expecting.

Some of you will remember a video on YouTube from a few years ago called Star Wars Kid. A fat American kid pretending to be Luke Skywalker or someone in his garage with a “light-sabre”. Ok. Imagine that. Now put a real sword in his hand. Surround him with hundreds of other lunatics with swords. Add a fair amount of alcohol and absolutely no sword training. You now have Ram Navami.

Honestly, it was insane. Everyone was standing in a circle and taking turns to jump into the middle and “fight” a dozen imaginary enemies. Every couple of seconds the crowd would have to jump back to avoid being hit by the swords. They might be blunt, but they'd still do you an injury – they're proper metal and heavy!

I saw some extroadinary stuff. A kid of about 6 or 7 holding a dagger and pushed into the middle by his (I assume) father. I saw one person do a “fight” weilding a tube light strip, a demonstration he completed by smashing the tube over his head. One man was so obviously drunk he managed to hit himself in the face and had to be led off with a bloody nose.

I could have watched it all night, but we decided to move on after 20 minutes or so. We passed more floats and more dancing groups. Bizarrely the parade itself starts around 11/12pm and goes on until 5am. Why this is necessary wasn't really clear. In fact, when asking for the history of the festival people were fairly sketchy with details.

Time for a bit of web research. The festival celebrates the birth of Rama. There is no obvious reason I can see why this is connected to acting like a drunken-monkey-ninja, but I'm sure it's in there somewhere.

Unfortunately I was due to travel to Kolkata the following day (12hr journey) and therefore didn't fancy staying up until 5am watching more of the lunacy, but as we walked home I managed to get some pretty good shots of some of the other floats and groups of people walking through the streets.

Anyway, enjoy the pics. Over the next few days I'll be giving details of my trip over the last few weeks (Kolkata – Darjeeling – Kathmandu – Annapurna Base Camp and the Himalayas – Phokara – Suzie visits Hazaribag and back to Kokata for a bit of IPL action). Are you excited yet?!?