A Travellerspoint blog

Week 15

Making the most of our last 2 weeks...

Once again, the sun is shining on the subcontinent and I've managed to find a small patch of shade on the beach next to the Arabian Sea to write about the last couple of weeks. We're in Goa for the day, to break up what would have otherwise been a 48 hour journey down south to catch our flight home. We still have a 20 hour train to go, but that doesn't leave for a good while yet.

Towards the end of November, we revisited a few places including Agra, Delhi and Dharamsala. With a few nights on our hands in Dharamsala (the home of the Dalai Lama), we did an overnight trek in the Himalayas. At just under 3000m, it was my highest night's sleep to date and a pretty chilly one at that. We'd actually arrived the day before the hike after travelling on the fastest train in India followed by a 'semi-deluxe' overnight bus. The bullet train (despite travelling at a not-so-staggering 100km/h) was complete luxury, and being used to the cheaper/slower option, we made the mistake of buying food and water beforehand (when we ended up being served it all for free onboard). No chai or samosa sellers on that train.

The so-called semi-deluxe bus that followed was a slight shock to the system, and not just for a travel sick stomach. I'm struggling to find the words to describe it, but picture hard seats barely big enough for a young teenager, windows that can't be locked sliding open with every bend in the road letting the mountain air in, and a luggage compartment too small so that an average-sized rucksack has to travel on the roof. Fixing the window problem with a hair tie, we tried our best to get some shuteye. Unfortunately, no amount of travel sickness tablets could cope with such a journey, so when three green faces stepped off the bus at dawn, one started throwing up before reaching the curb, another was sent to the roof to retrieve the last bag themselves, and the other was busy trying to find our next bus (as perhaps worst of all, we weren't even at our final destination). Thankfully we were able to check in early so we spent the rest of the day sleeping and recovering. My stomach didn't actually recover in time for the hike, so I ended up climbing over 1000m on no food and two sachets of dioralyte. Many breaks were needed but the sunset at the top made it all worth it.

From Dharamsala, we then made our way to Jaipur via another overnight bus and train. Arriving at 5am in Delhi, we had about 5 hours to kill before our train was due to depart, and we spent it in the only establishment open at the time: McDonalds. You know you've outstayed your welcome when the caretaker is giving you a feedback form to fill out. Having been on a few trains already, we weren't very surprised to learn our train was delayed. What we weren't quite prepared for was just how much it had been delayed. In the absence of our train number on the board, we asked at the enquiry deal and were told our train wouldn't be departing for at least another 5 hours. Armed with an unexpected abundance of time to spare, we headed out onto the traffic ridden streets of Delhi and filled a few hours before returning to the station for 4pm. Of course, it was probably naive to think our train would only be 5 hours delayed. After a further 4 hours of waiting, we finally boarded the train and arrived in Jaipur at 2am - 30 hours after leaving Dharamsala. Still, it could have been worse - a train which was arriving just before ours was delayed by 21 hours...leading me to question when a delay becomes a cancellation.

In Jaipur, we roamed around the street markets, explored the extensive Amber Fort and experienced life as a 19th century woman in Hawa Mahal. We also climbed up a lot of towers and viewing points, and it seems instead of stairs, Jaipur favours smooth slopes with slippery ridges, presumably there in an attempt to facilitate walking.

After seeing camels, elephants, monkeys and snakes on the streets of Jaipur, we then went on safari in Sawai Madhopur where we saw somewhat less 'exotic' deer, antelope and birds. We did track four different tigers however, following their footprints and hearing them from a distance, and the diversity in scenery was stunning. Leaving in the early morning and afternoon, we had two very different experiences: the first in a jeep, exploring a vast area with various landscapes; the second in a canter with about 20 other people. After sitting in a National Park trying to listen for a tiger next to other locals (parents and grandparents), I now feel much less guilty for not being able to get a class of 10 year olds to be quiet. Apparently watching a kid dancing on YouTube without headphones is far more interesting than searching for a wild tiger.

We then headed onto Udaipur, a relaxing city with a big lake and lots of posh fancy 5 star hotels, before getting an overnight train to Mumbai. Unfortunately, even when we started booking trains three months ago, this train was sold out and had a long waiting list. We did manage to get two beds between the three of us though, which meant a pretty squished 17 hour train journey south, and (as usual) lots of staring.

In Mumbai, we ate copious amounts of street food, witnessed a few hundred men playing overlapping cricket games in the local park (an act which is probably more organised than meets the eye), and were able to explore Dharavi (the largest slum in Mumbai and the one used in Slumdog Millionaire) for a couple of hours with a guy who grew up there. Before entering the slum, he pointed out 'poor' people on the side of the road and explained that no one inside the slum is poor. The rent and deposit for a place inside is relatively quite high, given that there are 18000 people living in each acre, and only 1 toilet for every 1500 people. The number of industries inside is pretty staggering and they're now even making products with the Dharavi label.

The train system in Mumbai was very useful, though I have no idea how they make any money, as tickets aren't checked at any point on the journey. There also aren't doors, and stopping at stations seems almost pointless as everyone's already jumped on/off by the time it does actually stop.

With just two days left in India, I'm quite excited to be able to walk down the street and have no one staring, selling me things, asking for photos or taking surreptitious selfies with me in the background. But there are plenty of things I'll miss: the positive 'it'll be fine', 'it'll work' and 'there's always space' attitude; the food - even with the best recipe and intentions, I doubt I'll get close to recreating it; the colours - in clothes, food, everywhere you look; the cycle rickshaws - the cheapest and most humble form of transport (rarely ripping you off unlike the auto rickshaws); the music and dancing, particularly the Bhangra style in Punjab; and of course the trains. After travelling on 25 trains here, we've learned a few things: whatever the temperature during the day, it does get cold overnight, the journey will vary wildly depending almost entirely on the people around you, and you won't be the boss of your own stomach - if you don't eat when it's available, it might be another 4 hours before the glorious sound of someone shouting 'samosa samosa samosa'.

There's far more I could write about, but hopefully some photos and video will speak much louder and better than any words I can conjure up. So for now, I'll prepare to wrap up warm and wish everyone a Merry Christmas - I hope it's a good one :)

Posted by CathyA1391 07:25 Comments (0)

Week 13

Temples, ruins, holy water and a bit of cricket...

It's 11am, the sun is shining and I'm surrounded by people taking selfies in front of a field with the Indian flag painted on their cheeks. We're in Chandigarh watching the third Test between India and England, and while I can in fact grasp the basic rules of cricket, I figured an entire day watching it would be a good time to write about the last few weeks.

During our last week at the farm, the callouses on our hands grew thicker as our daily projects went from taking seeds off corn and making pots to digging holes and landscaping. A few new animals arrived, others managed to escape sending everyone on a rescued dog chase, and one cow even gave birth. On the last day, we had the job of washing a dog with mange in a cubicle we ourselves would later be using for a bucket shower. I've never scrubbed a floor so hard before showering on it. I've also never known my opinion of dogs to change so many times in such a short time. One dog in particular, named Chombey after the bus stop where he was found, went between favourite and worst behaved at least ten times. One day, he'd be perfect on the morning stroll, the next he'd be fighting wild dogs and biting through his lead. In the end I think my favourite was Cheeky, who'd actually been released from the farm a long time ago, but enjoyed it too much to go far and still joined us for morning walks. Unfortunately he didn't get the message that his invitation wasn't 'plus one', and he often brought along a wild friend who always succeeded in riling up the others.

After leaving the farm, we re-entered civilisation which in the current climate means a daily struggle to find working ATMs and get cash. In an effort to stop the dealing of black money, the prime minister has decided to invalidate all 500 and 1000 rupee notes, leaving no legal currency between £1.20 and £25. There's a daily ATM limit of £25 and a multiple hour queue outside any open and working ATM. At the current rate of manufacturing, it will be six months before all of the invalidated cash is replaced. Let's hope this chaos causing plan works.

Our first destination was back to Punjab to see the Golden Temple in Amritsar. We happened to arrive on the night of an important Sikh festival and though we missed the fireworks, the temple was specially decorated with thousands of lights. While the temple itself is stunning, another reason for going was because they provide free accommodation and food to over 80,000 people each day. Running on 5000 volunteers a day, every Sikh is expected to volunteer there at some point in their life. It's a pretty spectacular operation to witness, and we were able to join some volunteers and peel tiny cloves of garlic for a couple of hours. (There really must be a more efficient way of cooking garlic - I'm pretty sure Jamie Oliver doesn't even bother peeling it anyway.) We also spent an evening at the Pakistan border, watching the bizarre daily ceremony involving soldiers in uniform, high kicks and slamming of gates. Funnily enough, the Indian side seemed to be far more chaotic and unorganised.

From Amritsar, we headed to Orchha and discovered along the way that you can definitely befriend someone too early on a 22 hour train. A small town famous for scattered ruins and temples built hundreds of years ago, it was a perfect place to wander, chase sunsets and see monkeys doing yoga positions. Living on a tight budget meant we experienced squeezing ten people into a rickshaw (plus the driver), and stayed two nights in a hostel where flushing the toilet lead to liquid gushing out the back pipe onto the floor towards a door which couldn't be closed.

We then should have had our shortest train journey yet, but alas, 3 hours turned into 7 before we touched down in Khajuraho. There, we had a free private yoga lesson and I had my back cracked for the first time, we rented bikes and cycled to some nearby mountains, and we saw truly explicit and raunchy carvings on the sides of some very old temples. Built in the 9th and 10th Centuries, they're well preserved and stunningly intricate, but not for the prudish type.

Next stop, the assault on the senses that is Varanasi (probably the craziest place we've been since Barnala). After arriving on an overnight train, we walked to our hostel through a series of alleyways, dodging the buffalos, cows, dogs and accumulation of all their excrement. While it seems £3 will get you a room resembling a prison cell, it also includes the highest rooftop terrace in Varanasi and a free boat ride. It's difficult to grumble at that, despite the rather questionable shared bathroom. Unfortunately, our stomachs were grumbling as our food still hadn't arrived after two hours of waiting. It was 2:30pm and we hadn't yet eaten. Complaining about the shoddy service, we left in a hangry mood and within seconds arrived at the burning ghat where around ten people were being cremated. The speed of restaurant service quickly paled into significance.

While the city and roads of Varanasi might have you believing that peace doesn't exist in the city, the ghats are a different affair. Although equally vibrant and sometimes shocking, the riverside feels much calmer. Next to the burning ghat, there are buffalos bathing in the water. Further along, there are hotel bed sheets being washed in the river and laid out to dry under the falling ash from another burning ghat (explaining the burnt holes in our own sheets). Next to those are people bathing and praying, and next to those are people drinking this holy river water. We were told that as long as you believe in the Ganga (Ganges), you won't get sick. There are countless kites in the sky and discarded snapped kite strings on the ground, tripping up those who aren't concentrating. From the hostel rooftop, we could also hear a man whistling and making strange noises while a flock of pigeons weaved in between the sea of kites. After a bit of research, it turns out the man was practising the ancient sport of Kabootar Bazi (pigeon racing).

One of the creature comforts we had in Barnala but now lack is TV. Watching English channels in India meant we were limited to a few options: world news, India news, Bear Grylls or the occasional film. If you're in the mood for people shouting over each other and arguing how to 'take down Pak (Pakistan)', then India news is the one. If you want swear words bleeped out, including the word 'beef' (as cows are sacred), films are a good option. For us, Bear Grylls happened to be on every night as we sat down for dinner, so as he drank his own urine to survive, we were tucking in to a feast of curry, dahl and chapattis.

Based on the cheering around me, I'm guessing India are playing better cricket than the English. The day also seems to be coming to a close, so it must be time to catch a train back to Delhi to begin our last three weeks in India... :)

Posted by CathyA1391 22:57 Comments (0)

Week 10

A change of scenery...

For the last week, we've been waking to the sound of cows mooing and dogs barking, and preparing to start work at 7:15 am. While there are countless dogs and cows roaming the streets in Barnala, this place couldn't be more different. For a great number of reasons, we decided to leave the school in Barnala earlier than planned, which has lead to us now working on an organic farm and animal recovery centre. Based in Dhanotu (a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas), our daily duties include dog walks through rice fields, planting trees, brushing cows and mules, picking up dog poo and making plant pots out of cow dung. Everything we're eating is grown here on the farm, and the chai (made with basil, mint and lemongrass) is amazing. It's great to see what can be done with so few resources, and every inch of material and space gets used and recycled. In most other areas of India, even the mountains, plastic wrappers, bottles and various other waste line the streets, so it's been really refreshing to live somewhere where nothing is wasted.

The animals who come here have differing problems and needs. Many live on the streets and get into trouble with other animals or get hit by cars or buses. Often, the locals are scared of them, so they resort to throwing rocks and stones at the animal. It does seem a tad strange that while cows are sacred and it's extremely frowned upon to euthanase a suffering cow or bull, irregardless of how much pain they're in, hitting them with sticks or stones is apparently acceptable.

In our last week in Barnala, we learned some Punjabi cooking, classes were put on hold for Diwali celebrations, and we went on a strange day trip involving riding the back of motorbikes and eating pizza in a suit shop with a basketball player who works as a train conductor. Leading up to Diwali, all the students in school were giving passionate speeches on microphones asking fellow scholars not to burn 'crackers' (fireworks) this Diwali, especially not ones made in China, in an attempt to stop damaging the environment. Perhaps unsurpringsly, these same students didn't exactly practise what they preached and would leave school to go with their families and buy as many crackers as their wallets would allow. Nevertheless, with everyone preparing for the festival of light, spirits were high at the end of October and the fairy lights decorating the streets and shops made it feel a bit like Christmas (albeit warmer than usual).

For the main day of celebrations, we made our way to Shimla, the old summer capital. Leaving Barnala at midnight, we had a slightly confusing journey involving a missing train carriage, being locked in a toilet and sitting on a stationery train for nearly two hours just to make sure we had a seat. We were fortunate enough however, to catch the 'toy train' from Kalka to Shimla, a UNESCO railway which travels a distance of 96km, a height of 1420m and through 102 tunnels in about 6 hours. It's also just a single carriage long, seating about 30 people and stopping at various hill stations on the way up. At over 2000m high, Shimla felt pretty cold compared to Punjab, especially in a hostel with no heating. But it was a great place to see the fireworks for Diwali, with seemingly every family setting some off over the course of the evening, either in their garden or on the town streets.

It's now time to get digging again. The work here is harder on my arms and legs, but much kinder to my ears - no more shouting children (or teachers) for a while... :)

Posted by CathyA1391 02:43 Comments (0)

Week 7

I'd be lying if I said the last few weeks have gone smoothly. For sure, we've enjoyed a few trips away, the temperature has finally started to drop and we've even done some Punjabi dancing to a song in Bend it like Beckham; however, the real struggle has been in the classroom and in communication (with both students and teachers).

To give a vague sense of what school life here is like, picture the following:

  • The daily timetable seems to change from one day to the next (along with the grades taught).
  • On entering the classroom, students surround the teacher shouting 'Mam, may I go to drink water?' and 'Mam, may I go to washroom?', invading any semblance of personal space.
  • Any students allowed to leave then appear at the door a minute later shouting 'May I come in?'.
  • Despite countless patient explanations, students continue to stand up at random intervals as though their seat is suddenly on fire, blocking the view of those behind.
  • The base noise level created by whirring fans and traffic means a loud voice is needed even if students are silent.
  • Walking around the classroom and ignoring students who are shouting often results in them tapping your arm or hand for attention.
  • Maids and other staff think nothing of entering the classroom without knocking to hand out worksheets and notices.

On top of all that, I regularly have 9-year-old students 'correcting' my English, telling me I'm wrong when I say the word 'pilot' does not have an E at the end. Confidence is not what they're lacking. A couple of moments I'm not so proud of: shutting the door quite forcefully in order to get the students' attention and consequently cracking the wall; and asking the Principle to help with a difficult class, only to watch as she repeatedly slapped eight students and asked me privately not to tell anyone. I'm assuming she won't discover this pretty quiet blog.

One further insight into the culture here can be seen in our Hindi lessons, where we learned the following on day one:

  • Come to me.
  • Auntie, bring me water.
  • Bring me dinner.
  • Listen to me.
  • Don't disturb me.
  • I want to talk to you.

No 'How are you?' or 'Where are you from?', just straight in with the commands.

Fortunately, amongst the headaches, confusion and chaos at school, we've been rewarded when venturing out on some weekend trips. In Rishikesh and Haridwar, we walked by the Ganges with mountainous scenery, saw thousands of people bathing in the holy water, and got chased by two cows who wanted a bite of our street food. We also realised that escaping the path of motorbikes and scooters was pretty much impossible, as even a bridge just one metre wide wasn't free from them.

In Delhi, I had my first heated shower in over 6 weeks, went to a football match (where they begin by shouting 'Let's football' - something even the Australian commentator on Indian TV does), and went 15 hours on two samosas due to our inability to find eateries. Admittedly, there was an area where kebabs were available, but there wasn't a veg option and there were more flies hitting my face than people in London on New Years.

We ended the day in a bar with 'live music', which looked at first to be karaoke with about 8 stationary people sitting on stage looking extremely bored. On closer inspection, it seems the richer patrons would request their favourite songs by sending a waiter up to the band with a handful of crisp 50p notes. The laptop (and their phone) was then used for the lyrics while the cardboard cutouts behind turned into musicians playing keyboards and drums. For some reason, we also had people trying to sneakily throw nuts at us for the whole evening, so when I stood to leave, it looked as though I'd just excreted 20 peanuts.

Travelling on trains anywhere is often an adventure and India is no exception, especially if you're stingy and only ever get the cheapest seats. Personally, I think if you pay more for a ticket, you miss out on some special moments: having a face caked in dirt flying in through the open window; the lack of personal space when non-paying passengers insist on squeezing into non-existent seats; sitting helplessly as the woman opposite puts her feet up next to you and threatens to rip a hole in your trousers with her crusty heels; watching the ticket conductor push an elderly lady to the ground and use a stick to get rid of a hundred people in an effort to control ticket-less passengers; being teased and hit on the head by eunuchs demanding money; and being able to rely on arriving at the destination at least an hour late. Living in a small town also means no one expects us to disembark here, and the train doesn't stop at the platform - meaning we have to clamber down to the tracks, up onto another train and out the other side.

Despite what a lot of the above might sound like, it's great to be here, and we're lucky to be around for so many festivals. Just last week, the streets were thronging with people from town and nearby villages to see the burning of demon Ravana for Dusshera; and yesterday saw many women fasting for their husbands (to give them a long life) and spending the day painting mehndi on each other. Diwali is just over a week away, so with any luck there might be a day off or two :)

Posted by CathyA1391 03:45 Comments (0)

Week 5

Deciphering the horns and settling in...

Since arriving, I’ve tried to find books written in English by Indian authors, and I’ve just finished one where the main character is from Bihar state. In the last chapter, he travels to New York and is stunned by the ‘silent’ roads – he can’t understand how traffic can function without people using their horns. Safe to say, we’ve had the opposite reaction when on the roads here, and I’ve come to realise that a ‘beep’ can mean a multitude of things. Here’s what I have so far:
· I’m about to overtake.
· I’m coming round the corner.
· There’s enough space for you to get past.
· There’s not enough space for you to get past.
· Move out of the way.
· You idiot.
· I refuse to slow down.
· Get out of the way, cow. (Or pig, donkey etc.)
· Thank you.
· Don’t move. / Stay where you are.
· I disagree with your last manoeuvre.
· Oi!

Our current home is in the small town of Barnala in Punjab. Having grown up in possibly the flattest part of the UK, it seems we are now in the flattest part of India. Since arriving in Punjab 4 weeks ago, I haven’t seen a single hill or inclined slope, but that’s not to say there aren’t any bumps or uneven roads around. There is a cow round every corner, and a pig in every pile of rubbish. Dogs wander the streets by day, occasionally getting into scraps with each other, and even the odd camel can sometimes be seen making its way through the town. We also seem to be sharing a room with three resident geckos.

After living in Tokyo, where 10 minutes to download a film is considered far too long, we now seem to be living in a country with the most temperamental internet I've ever known. Slow speed - that I could cope with. But 2.5 hours on 6 computers in 3 different locations to book one train ticket - that goes a tad past my patience level.

Our first venture out of Barnala was to the ‘safest and cleanest city in India’, Chandigarh. The capital of two states (Punjab and Haryana), and designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, the city has quite a different feel from other Indian cities. After spending the day exploring the sights, we went to find our hostel for the night. Luckily for us, jumping on a local bus and looking confused seems to attract the help of extremely kind people. Unfortunately, even with a copious amount of help from locals, it turned out the hostel we booked closed down a month ago, and all other hotels in the area were about 6 times our budget. Perhaps the well maintained roads and cleanliness justify the comparatively high hotel prices. Long story short, we found a place within our budget, without air-con, and with a complimentary pair of dirty pants left in the bathroom. We didn’t stick around the next morning…

Being in a small town without frequent bus or train connections, we never imagined we could fit in a trip to the Taj Mahal in a 2 day weekend. To our surprise, we found a train leaving Barnala at 6pm and arrived in a deserted Agra at 3.30am. After exiting the station where people were sleeping in every nook and cranny, we milled around the Taj next to sleeping dogs, rickshaw drivers and a very large, awake gecko (which turned out to be a rat).

While waiting for the gates to open, we had some tea and coffee from a street stall. When I say coffee, I mean the seller realised after 5 minutes that he'd given me black tea, and so came back to pour a coffee sachet into the tea. Waste not want not. At sunrise, the gates opened and our bags were searched as we entered the World Wonder. It seems biscuits are allowed but playing cards bought in Japan are not. We spent the afternoon battling the heat in Agra fort, before heading across the river to catch the sunset from the rear side of the Taj.

The next morning, on the advice of the hostel owner (who was of the firm belief that all trains to Delhi are at least 3 hours late), we bought the cheapest tickets on a train leaving at 6am. Leaving at sunrise meant I was able to witness an ordinary part of a few hundred people's lives. It's probably what most people do when they wake up in the morning, just not in front of a train jam-packed with onlookers. Between 6:00 and 6:15am, not a single person within sight of the train tracks was standing or walking - everyone was squatting. On the grass, on the dirt, on rubbish and just a couple of metres away on the tracks, every bum was hovering millimetres above the ground. Women congregated in groups, having a natter over a morning dump, while men spread themselves out. I think the memory of seeing hundreds of bare bums from inside a moving train might stay with me for a while.

While the sun continues to produce temperatures of 38 degrees, our days consist of teaching in classrooms without air con, cooling down in the staff room and showering after every venture outside. As all our delicious meals are cooked for us, our daily chores are now hand washing laundry and emptying the bucket of condensed water vapour from the air conditioner (about 10 litres a day). We should be starting Hindi lessons this week, so hopefully there'll actually be a small amount of understanding when talking with the school maids. Actions and gestures can only communicate so much... :)

Posted by CathyA1391 21:48 Comments (0)

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