Sunday, 21 August 2011


Week 4.

We left for Manali on a creaky old bus on Sunday afternoon. It’s a semi sleeper because sleeper buses are illegal in Himachal Pradesh – the difference between the two is that a sleeper bus has bunks whereas a semi sleeper bus merely has reclining seats. However, as luxurious as this sounds, when everybody reclines there’s simply no room for your legs – and everyone –does- recline. Another interesting design fault in the buses is that all of the windows and air conditioning units leak, making for a less than pleasant journey.

We arrived in Manali after 17 hours of twists and turns through the mountains. Upon leaving the bus we were surrounded by people convincing us to go to their guesthouses, as standard, and after we’d decided on one we were taxi’d to Old Manali.

Manali is beautiful. I’m really going to struggle to convey how different it is to Delhi. To begin with, it has a fantastically crisp, cool climate. The air feels clean and there’s actually a breeze!  After three weeks in humid, polluted Delhi you cannot begin to imagine our joy at actually having to wear a scarf! Because it’s a hill station village in a valley, the road is a winding upwards path, with lots of branches off it, and there is a beautiful view of the river or the opposite side of the valley everywhere you are. 

We were centrally located, right next to three lonely planet listed cafes, which was ideal as it soon became apparent to us that we’d be eating a lot this week! We had breakfast in Moon Dance café, a fantastic place psychedelically decorated (as most of Manali is) and decided upon our course of action. I had found a ‘day in manali for under 4 euros’ online, and armed with this (and no map, there are no maps of Manali so tourists are forced to pay for guides) we set out on a very very long walk.

We started at Manu temple, which was a fairly simple Hindi temple before continuing upwards towards some steps carved out of a massive stone leading apparently nowhere. There were, however, fresh cowpats on them which gave us hope that this was a legitimate route. Throughout the day we would search eagerly for these signs of life in lieu of having any actual idea of the direction we were going.

We walked for what seemed like hours upwards on rocky terrain before reaching a green space overlooking the valley. We then continued walking upwards and onwards, only the path was a little less defined now, we were ducking under branches, pushing through brambles and clambering over rocks, still hoping we were following the directions properly. We came to a peculiarly isolated café in the middle of a field, called Reggae Café. It was tended by a man who invited us to sit down but who explained that they weren’t open; about twenty dogs roamed around the space territorially and barking occasionally. There was a sudden rainburst that lasted for about an hour, but after twenty minutes we decided we’d risk it and carried on down our slippery path.

It was about here that our route got a bit convoluted. We were walking along a side of a valley looking for the village of Gushpal, but we had ended up somehow in a huge apple orchard that kept sloping upwards and downwards as we walked east. However, constant intrusion onto other peoples’ land to ask for directions turned out to be a good approach for us as we eventually made it to this picturesque village with wooden houses and women on balconies working at their looms. It was so quiet, we felt like we’d been transported to another time, despite the occasional tv satellite poking out of the roof of a shack.

We then walked onwards to the village of Vaishist. Not before, however, we’d crossed the river. The Himalayas being the Himalayas, it seems like there’s little need for a bridge across fast flowing rivers in the middle of valleys. We’d searched for a nearby bridge but none presented itself, so instead we had to navigate a way over by stepping on stones closest to the surface of the water. About halfway over we gave up and just waded through, ruining our shoes in the process. The rest of our walk was soundtracked by a constant ‘squelch… squelch… squelch…’

When we reached Vaishist we had lunch in a reggae themed café, and drank a thimble full of whisky toasting the father of a new acquaintance of ours’ birthday. We then went and bathed in the hot springs that are a part of a Hindi temple there. Men and women have separate pools so I parted ways with Johnny and Chris for a while and luxuriated in my first contact with hot water for three weeks.

Afterwards, we befriended a Babaji, who is essentially a hindu holy man – kind of like a pilgrim, I guess. He took us to a café and we had a chat and a cup of chai as the sun set over the valley.

After that we walked home, absolutely exhausted. We went to a restaurant called Shesh Besh for dinner. Shesh Besh became our favourite place to go almost immediately, it’s colourfully decorated, with very chilled music going out over the speakers and chess boards and backgammon boards are on every table. The food is absolutely delicious too, which is a help.

The next day, I was struck down by some small illness which rendered me incapable for the day. I slept and read for the whole day, which was lovely.

On Wednesday we walked to New Manali and struggled to work out the government bus system. At the bus station there are no signs or apparent bays, instead there is a constant stream of traffic and men standing around barking at each other. Fortunately a kind woman pointed us in the direction of the right bus and we boarded for Solang Valley. When we arrived we found ourselves pilots for paragliding and clambered up to the peak from which we would leap. It was pretty special. Afterwards we zorbed, which essentially involves being strapped into a large inflatable ball and rolled down a hill. It was about as pleasant as it sounds, but I’m glad we did it. On the Zorbing course we met a lovely boy called Thomas from the Netherlands, we went for a drink with him afterwards and he taught us how to play backgammon – what an amazing game!

On Thursday we embarked upon our Great Adventure – or, our day long trek to Patalsu Peak, which is 4200m above sea level. We began at Solang Valley and took a quadbike type thing to the river at the bottom of the valley. Then we walked over a quaint looking bridge and our trek began. At first we were walking through fields and fields of cabbages, then through a small village, then through trees and thickets – all the while going relentlessly uphill. I can’t pretend I handled the whole thing with enthusiasm and grace, at one point I asked Sam to count to 10 while I measured my heartrate and then panicked  ‘My heartrate’s 192bpm! That can’t be possible! I’m going to die! My heart is going to burst out of my chest and run away from me…’ All credit must go to Johnny and Sam for putting up with my constant rest breaks and whinging. I was convinced we hadn’t brought enough water as well, and a dreadful fear of dying of thirst at the summit plagued the entire journey. It would have been just my luck to achieve getting to the top, only to drop dead before I had the chance to even update my facebook status about it…

Anyway, the closer we got to the top, the prettier it became. We had to walk through this beautiful field of wildflowers, and then what looked like a wild strawberry field (this gave me some consolation, at least we would not starve in our 8 hour trek.) Our guide told us it had been just beyond a line of trees and when we got to that point I collapsed upon a stone (that looked just like the stone table I imagine Aslan being killed on. That should have been my first warning.) We ate some of the wild strawberries Sam had thoughtfully collected and I basked in the success of reaching the top.
‘You do know this isn’t the top right?’

shoots through my reveries. I sit up and bluff, ‘um, oh yeah, definitely..’ looking with trepidation at the looming peak ahead of us, that I had hitherto managed to ignore. Having been persuaded to continue by no other technique than peer pressure (less a case of ‘because it was there’ more ‘because they told me to’) I recommenced the trek.

You may be thinking, ah, but what views! Surely the sights you could see from so high must have afforded you some consolation in the depths of your exhaustion?! – unfortunately, by this point we were lucky if we could see the person in front of us, so thick were the clouds we were walking through.  We reached a random assortment of rocks and our guide told us we’d reached one of many potential tops. I felt a flood of relief wash over me, even as I heard him continue

‘but if you want to, we can continue to…’ and he pointed behind him, at a sharp, steep, terrifying looking peak some distance away. It was too much for my poor nerves to bear, and I resolved this time to resist peer pressure and remain behind while the boys continued ahead. I figured that with the murderous gleam in Johnny’s eyes that my complaining had elicited over the past hour, and considering we really were far away from any kind of help, and our water supply really was running dangerously low, it would be best for all parties involved if I stayed behind.

I found a comfortable looking rock (about 8 ft from the ground, heaven knows how I managed to get up there) and took out Sam’s book and attempted to read…

I wake up, having had no intention of falling asleep, as heavy droplets of rain start falling down. I have no idea how much time has passed, the clouds have rolled onwards thicker than before and I’m suddenly feeling disoriented and slightly panicky. It’s really quite cold. I weigh up the risks of getting off the now slippery and wet rock, and staying out in the exposed rain… I decide to throw caution to the wind and clamber down, managing to remain intact. I find a nearby shepherd’s hut and rock back and forth in a corner of it for a while, before attempting to build a fire with wet twigs and a broken lighter (the main lesson I took from this is my future uselessness in a post-apocalyptic scenario.) Fortunately the boys were on their way back and could save me from going crazy from solitude a la Tom Hanks in castaway.

The way back was, if anything, more difficult than the way up. The rain had turned our perilous path into a slushy obstacle course of skids, roots and rocks. We were lucky if we made it 20 metres at a time without one of us slipping over. However, Sam kept an eye on me so my fall rate was significantly less than everyone else’s but our guide who remained curiously unexhausted and pristine. However, we finally made it home – or, to Shesh Besh for a reviving cup of tea and dinner.

Friday morning we booked our bus home to Delhi for Saturday afternoon, and got a government bus to Naggar. We’d heard there was a castle and a memorial to a famous artist in this town, so we figured it was worth the trip. However, we walked the kilometre to the castle and managed to walk right past it! It was only a chance encounter with a boy we’d met the day before in New Manali that alerted us to our mistake. It’s perhaps the least imposing castle in the world, made of wood and of no great height. We paid our 50rs and went in. It’s fairly disappointing, just a balcony really with some nice views of the valley. In the basement there’s a museum, or, a display case with an assortment of things and no writing explaining them or their relevance to the museum. It was all significantly underwhelming.

We then walked to the Nicholas Roerich memorial a further two kilometres away. It was actually really beautiful and well put together. I enjoyed myself, despite having never heard of him before.

On the way back the heavens opened in a truly spectacular fashion. After about three minutes I gave up any attempt of trying to stay dry and just concentrated on not tripping over my sodden harem pants. On the bus back you could see the rivers and waterfalls had turned brown from the force of the extra water, it was pretty terrifying going round those winding mountain top roads when they were acting as riverbanks themselves with so much water running down them.

The next day we got up and it was still raining. We went to the tourist office we’d booked with and they told us the roads were closed and we’d have to rebook. Suddenly, Manali was looking less appealing. Glumly, we walked to Shesh Besh for breakfast, and we sat inside in the chillout area with cushions on the floor and a television. Our spirits were roused by noticing a stack of DVDs and we spent literally the entire day watching dvds and ordering food at shesh besh. It was a perfect day for just chilling out.

We went to Moon Dance for dinner when I realised there was football on. It seems to be a peculiar trait of mine to enjoy watching football far more when I’m abroad, but I think it’s something to do with missing the pub culture. It follows that where there is an English football game being shown (Liverpool v. Sunderland) there will be English tourists drinking beer, which is the next best thing to a pub, I suppose. Anyway, I was right, and we met a load of just-graduated students from Manchester and two medics from Imperial.

After the football was over, we moved onto a bar/restaurant that was right next to our guesthouse. We could hear the music being played there going on all night every night. It was hilariously typically traveller-esque. There were maybe three travellers in a corner playing on their guitars while people sang along to songs like bob Dylan and the beatles, and even coldplay! Then a really gifted tabla player performed… and people just took turns to play and chill. We ended up staying until about 4.30am, by far the latest night we’d spent out.

The next day, Johnny and I changed our booking for our bus home. The two medics from Imperial had persuaded us of the merits of the deluxe bus, rather than the luxury bus, so we thought, why not! As events transpired, it became apparent that there were many reasons why not.

It got off to a bad star, with everyone having been loaded onto one bus, then asked to move to another. My reclining seat refused to remain un-reclined and in front of us sat two large Indian women, one of whom – to Johnny’s great and ever increasing annoyance- would recline her seat back slightly and then rest her hand above her head on her headrest, which happened to be a few centimetres away from Johnny’s face. There was a constant battle between the two for the entire journey. The woman would flick her hand over her head, Johnny would (first politely, then with rising irritation) ask her to move her hand away, and the woman would look shocked and affronted, only to do exactly the same thing half an hour later. It was infuriating. Then there was the small matter of driving over recent landslide debris and over flooded river banks.

That would have all been fine, but for the punctured tyre about 6 hours in. We had to stop in the middle of nowhere and wait while another tyre was brought to us. It took an agonisingly long time. We passed the time with games of Arrogance with the medics, but it wasn’t exactly the stuff great memories are made of.

Our long journey continued, and as it started raining outside I slowly became drenched due to an incredibly ill-conceived style of window in the coach, which was two glass sliding panels with about an inch of space between them meaning that everyone in a window seat was as subject to the weather as if they were in a (cramped, uncomfortable, cold) convertible.

In the morning, a full 3 hours late, we were unceremoniously dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Well, it was Delhi, but not as we knew it. Rather it was a Tibetan colony somewhere in Delhi and no-one spoke English to tell us where the nearest metro was so we wouldn’t be overcharged to go there by an enterprising rickshaw driver. By now I was near breaking point, I’d barely slept, my hair was a knotted tangled mess and the ridiculous amount of tat I had bought in Manali was weighing me down horribly. I furiously hailed down a cycle rickshaw and on finding my way to the nearest metro, found myself a seat and scowled at anyone who looked at me until I finally reached lovely East of Kailiash in lovely South Delhi.

Thus endeth our week in the Himalayas, with the journey home undoing the effort of unwinding for a week.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Week 3

I finally got to visit the flagship school of Katha. It's amazing. 

It’s beautiful; bright white and gleaming in the middle of sprawling slums. It’s angular with slanting walls and arches everywhere. Stairways lead to balconies overlooking the playground or to the roof which looks out towards the poverty surrounding it. The classrooms are all dark and cool and excellently equipped. There’s a computer suite, a woodshop, art rooms, textiles room, a kindergarten and a nursery – there’s everything the most well equipped school in England could desire.

A little information about Katha.  

The Katha Lab School began in 1990 as a learning centre in the slums of Govindpuri, Delhi, with 5 children. Today Katha has 9450 children in 43 Katha Schools in Delhi and in the 4 tribal schools of Arunachal Pradesh.

Knowing that children working on the streets are unable to go to school, the Katha School on Wheels Programme takes learning to them. Their colourfully painted RTV van touches 10 traffic intersections across South Delhi every day. Filled with fun learning materials, books, puppets and a computer, the vans bring nearly 1,000 children into interactive learning.

The Katha infotech & Ecom School, KITES, trains students from primary to high school, and makes them computer-confident individuals. During the last year, 286 students were awarded ‘O’ and ‘A’ level Certificates. Two new centres were started last year with the support of CAF and Adobe India, in Tughlakabad, NCT, and Khore Gaon, Haryana.

KSE, started in 1995, provides vocational and entrepreneurship training with leadership and job shadowing opportunities. This intensive and professional programme works with an objective of helping children stand on their own feet and support their families. The school offers the following programmes:
§  Fashion Designing
§  Cutting & Tailoring
§  Embroidery
§  Wood Craft
§  Bakery
§  Carpentry
In the year 1990, Katha started Jhunjhunwadi, the preschool in the Katha Lab School. We run 54 preschools that are happy places for 3-5 year olds living in 65 slums. Their preschools develop a social, artistic and culturally rich environment for children who live in Delhi’s large slum clusters.

On Saturday we went to Agra. We had been told  by everyone who'd been to get there for dawn, so we could see the sunrise change the colour of the Taj, so we booked our taxi for half 1, so we could get there athalf five in time for dawn at quarter to six. However, our taxi arrived at midnight, and our extremely dangerously sleepy driver got us there at four am. The Taj doesn't actually open until 6, so we were kindly allowed to sleep in a hotel foyer for an hour and a half, before racing to the Taj, only to be rained on and for 
the clouds to obscure the sun entirely. However, the one benefit in getting there so early was that it was really really quiet. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Amazing Amritsar.

These two photos were taken one hour apart.

Kathak Dance

Travelling in style..

One of the officials at the golden temple.

Amritsar, sponsored by coca cola.

Iskon Temple

Charlotte, the soldier and I.


The last week has been fairly eventful!

Work has remained the same; I am still planning and writing the content for this book to accompany the educational series. However, I have found out that as well as lesson plans it has to have information for parents to teach their children with – which effectively doubles my work load. It’s very interesting though, I’m relearning all my KS3 geography facts!

Extra curricular stuff has been fantastic this week.

On Tuesday we booked our bus ticket to Amritsar and then went to Iskon (international society for Krishna consciousness) temple, which is a large Hindi temple complex just up the road from where we live. We went at around 6.30 and watched the beginning of a Hindi celebration. They all danced and clapped and wandered round in a kind of spiral shape. It was interesting. The interesting thing about Iskon is that while it serves as a temple to many, it’s also got a museum and a café and a place for feeding the homeless. The logo also looks like it belongs in a comic book.

Lovely Charlotte joined us on Wednesday– she was a gapper three years ago and returned for six days to revisit the country she fell in love with. We went to see a film called Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, it’s obviously an Indian film and it’s really very good. No English subtitles, but about one word in fifteen was English, which made it an interesting experience. A typical conversation would go ‘hindihindihindihindi.. you know.. hindihindi I can’t believe it, man.’ It’s not typical Bollywood, only two songs, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The main song was this:

On Thursday we went to Habit to see some Indian dancing. It wasn’t quite what we were expecting. We got to Habit which is a cultural centre that showcases dancing every night and fought our way through the rain to the auditorium. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were attending a celebration of a particular dancer and she came and opened the show. We stayed for two dancers, both in the Kathak style. Kathak is story telling through dance. The Sitar will begin and the Tabla joins in after an introductory piece (thank you music GCSE…) and the dancer engages in very slight deliberate movements for about two minutes. The dancer will then go to the mic and narrate the dance they just performed – in hindi so absolutely unintelligible to us – before adding a sort of vocal accompaniment to the music, in a way that can only be described as ‘Ta..Ta..Ta… TaTaTaTaTaTa… TikiTa…’ for a few minutes, and then going to dance again. Wikipedia reliably informs me that there are ten sections in a Kathak dance, so it’s a fairly long piece. The dancers wore bells around their ankles, so for sections they just moved their feet to make sounds by a floor level mic front and centre stage. Having looked at other Kathak dances on youtube since, I think the ones were saw were just particularly dull. The second dancer was a large toadlike woman who constantly berated her musicians, thus breaking the spell somewhat.

On Friday we went to Sarojini market which is a cut price market selling all sorts. Charlotte and I bought elephant necklaces and Shalwar Kameezs (100 rupees apiece!) which we took to the tailor to alter to fit our size. Everyone should have a tailor, they are frankly amazing. We also went to Dilli Haat again where I finally capitulated and bought the teapot I fell in love with last week (and two mugs.. and coasters thrown in for free!) Later on we climbed into our rickety overnight bus to Amritsar. The sleeping arrangements weren’t the best, a tiny single size bunk for two people. However, aircon didn’t matter because the window was right by our heads, and big enough to fall out of, so if any trees were brushed past we certainly knew about it! We improvised slightly and used Kameez-tying-string to create some kind of safety barrier on the other side, lest a sudden turn lurched us into the aisle amongst bewildered Indian men.

After a night of not so much sleep we arrived in Amritsar and walked to the golden temple, certain as we were of getting accommodation there for the night. We wandered in, shoes stored away in the lockers, hair covered by scarves and spent a fruitless hour in the scorching heat trying to get to where we would book a room. Alas, it was to no avail, and we went to the tourist office in front of the temple and asked for a recommendation for a hotel. We were asked if 250 rupees per room per night was acceptable to us – and it was! That’s about £3.50. We were met by a smiley sikh man who took us back through the temple to the other side – past several coca cola stands selling bottles for 5 rupees (Amritsar is sponsored by CocaCola, I’m almost certain. They have a fountain of a cola bottle in the middle of town and murals of it everywhere. All signs saying pepsi are vandalised, and mass texts are sent among the Indians saying that workers at the pepsi factory have aids and if you drink it, you will get aids. I kid you not.) towards a narrow dark street. He then led us into what appeared to be his house and his sisters and mother greeted us as we walked through the door. Essentially, Harpreet Singh was midway through turning his house into a guesthouse, and upstairs there were several bare looking rooms with airconditioning and comfy beds. We were told that for the weekend we were part of the family and anything we wanted they would provide. We got free water, free tea, free breakfast, free internet – it was amazing! The sisters even took in our dresses for us, and only let us pay them very very reluctantly!

After we’d spent a while in the cool, refreshing and showering ourselves we wandered out to look at the golden temple again. Here I began to experience firsthand what I had before only heard rumours of: being a tourist attraction in my own right. Oftentimes people will just shove a camera in your face and take a picture, much more preferable is when someone asks you first and then arranges their friends/family/baby around you before taking a picture. It can get ridiculous though, with people swapping in and out, taking the photo then being in the photo. And once one person has asked, a whole flood of people then wait to be in the picture with you and what was initially you being polite has ended up as being fifteen minutes of being continuously photographed. Anyway, it was blazing hot and we hadn’t eaten yet so we wandered through dark and twisting streets to find a restaurant to eat at  (Chris has an aversion to street food so whenever we’re with him we have to eat indoors.)

After lunch we went to the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre which is now a memorial garden. The whole garden is set out so you can see where the soldiers stood, and you can see the bullet marks in the wall. It’s very sobering.

We then wandered through the streets again, walking past people baking bread in stone ovens, past rows of men at sewing machines, past a flour factory. The amazing thing about walking around India is that very often you can look inside people’s homes due to just an astonishing disregard for their own privacy, or holes in the walls around them. We walked down a residential road and it looked like we were reaching a dead end, but I had a hunch and kept walking on. We came to a cotton factory, and the workers let us in to see the machines at work. It was such an experience!

Afterwards we returned home, but not until after I had stopped at a sweet shop to get some coconut burfi. I have fallen in love with Indian sweets, they’re incredible.

At 8.30 we met Manu outside the golden temple. Manu was a friend of Harpreet’s and he was going to show us around the temple and explain to us about Sikhism (earlier he had come to our room with a baby bird and let us play with it!) It was such an interesting tour; he took us to all of the parts of the temple complex and explained to us about the history of Sikhism and their beliefs. He took us into what was sort of like a Sikh communion, but instead of bread and wine they are given a sticky sweet brown substance with a crushed biscuit sprinkled on top. Afterwards we sat on the steps by one of the pools of nectar and chatted – anachronistically Manu’s ringtone was My Heart Will Go On from Titanic! At 10.30 we went to see the holy book being taken from the golden temple into its resting place for the night. Every night and morning they go through this ceremony that hundreds upon hundreds of Sikhs clamour to see. With Manu guiding us however, we were in a perfect location to see everything happen, from the blessing of the cloths that it rested on, to it actually being carried into its room. The rooms are glass fronted so you can see that it has its own bed and a hefty air conditioning system.
We retired to bed after that, after having resolved to get up at half three to see the opening ceremony at 4am the next day – which we did, only to discover that it was exactly the same but in reverse. I may have been blinded somewhat by tiredness at that point though. I do recall it being very peaceful though, despite the probable thousands of people there. Many people just lie in the cloisters and sleep. Men dip in the pool of nectar around the golden temple – the same water that pilgrims drink in the temple itself.

We went back to bed, and then got up for breakfast with the family which was a Punjab special that they only ate on Sundays, a kind of potato and onion and vegetable chapati thing. It was indescribably tasty! We resolved to actually get inside the temple today and returned to it. However, despite very obviously being lost tourists, no-one could tell us where the queue began or ended. At first we were queuing in the men only line, then when that was pointed out to us we joined the women’s line, only for us to get to the front and be redirected to the tourist’s entry point. People of Britain, never underestimate the value of a well-placed signpost and people who queue patiently.  However, this tourist fast track system is amazing. Instead of waiting for at least three hours in very cramped and packed conditions under a scorching sun, we just rocked on past and straight in. It almost makes up for being continually ripped off the rest of the time. The inside of the temple is beautiful, it’s very small, but if you go upstairs, people can take small prayer books and sit in the windows and read to themselves. The view was fantastic but photos weren’t allowed.

That afternoon we went to Wagah, which is a ceremony on the border of Pakistan and India. Essentially, you arrive at a place, and it’s got a kind of carnival atmosphere, there’s street food everywhere and thousands of people milling around. Then, at a specified time, you’re allowed through the barriers and a great surge of people rush forward, only to be stopped by mounted police who let people through so many hundred at a time. After that you’re split into men and women to be searched, and then slightly further down the line you reach a kind of semi auditorium with banks of seats. To our dismay we saw everything was full up already. However, being a tourist again has its advantages, and we were shown to our own bank of seats, very close to the actual border.

It’s very hard to describe the ceremony, it began with pairs of women or children running with the Indian flag towards the border, and waving it at the Pakistanis. Then a lot of women came down from the stands to dance in the centre to Indian pop music. After that, a tall man in white got the crowd excited with some pantomime style audience participation about how great India is. Then a very long and complicated ceremony begins. The soldiers have red plumes on their heads and they walk in a way to make monty python proud, supposedly in imitation of fighting cockerels. Before each walks, they have to make a loud ‘Aaaaah’ sound for as long as they can into the mic, and the soldiers in Pakistan do the same simultaneously – it’s a competition to see who can go longest, Pakistan won every round when we went. After a lot of funny walking and ceremony, the flags were lowered at the border and the ceremony was over. We got ourselves limed corn on the cob and went back to Amritsar.

We packed our things away and went to the bus stand, where we waited inside and watched a Bollywood film of suspect origin in the booking office, before getting on a considerably nicer bus than before and going home to Delhi. It was an amazing weekend.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Welcome to Delhi

Hello loved ones and those I merely like, alike. 

This is my hotly anticipated first blog post about the adventures that are happening to and around me in the pungent city of Delhi. I'll try to catch you up on what's been occurring. 

Well, I left sunny England on Saturday the 16th and suffered the flight with the patience and good will you've all come to expect from me... Ha! No, I cried for the first hour until I became aware of how acutely uncomfortable the two men sat either side of me were. We were fine though, and by the end of the trip, the gentleman next to me named Anubhav had extended an invitation to his for dinner my way, in an example of Indian hospitality that I've grown to be reliant on. I struggled through several very bad films and tried my hardest not to fall asleep - I was determined not to be jetlagged! 

There was hideous turbulence for about two hours, but we landed safely and soundly, all intact. I was met on the other side by a hurried looking man in a turban, who impatiently let me withdraw money then led me (lugging my inordinately heavy bag) to his thankfully air conditioned car. It was here he broke his frosty silence and we had a wonderful discussion about the many and varied hospitals we were passing and how people from England are all, invariably, lovely (absolutely not making that up..) However, as pleasant as he was, the journey to my new home was my first experience of A) Indian traffic and B) life without satnav or maps.

Let me try to explain Indian traffic to you. So as well as cars, predominantly 4x4s I might add, you’ve got motorbikes – often with two or three passengers, rickshaws, bicycles and autorickshaws – which are like the Thai tuk-tuks. Let’s say there are three lanes, what you first need to know is that no-one indicates, not even those in cars. Instead, the driver will hit their horn if they’re about to change lanes. There is no concept of a safe stopping distance, everyone is packed in as closely as they can. If there is the slightest bit of room, autorickshaws and motorcyclists will awkwardly squeeze their way through the gaps. At intersections, people will happily swerve the wrong way down a one way street if it’s a short cut. As for pedestrians, they’ll happily walk blindly across the street and rely on the drivers’ skill to avoid them. All of this is twenty times worse in an autorickshaw where you are literally centimetres away from death or murder at all times…  but more on that later!

Anyway, my driver didn’t know where my new home was, so he trawled slowly around, shouting out of the window for directions at anybody who happened to be standing on the street at the time. Even after calling Sushma, my host mother, three or four times, he didn’t know how to get there. Eventually, about an hour and a half later, we pulled up outside a house with a woman standing outside. This was Sushma, and she whisked me quickly up to my (amazing) room on the third floor. I’m in a large room with a bed as wide as it’s long, an amazing air conditioning system and ensuite bathroom. It’s beautifully decorated too, orange and blue.

The next morning I woke up at 11, in time to remember where I was, get ready and go down for a chat with Sushma about the house rules. Then Kathryn, our local co-ordinator, came to meet me and just talked me through the basics of living in Delhi. After that, we went to Dilli Haat. It’s a food plaza/bazaar showcasing regional crafts and goods. They change every few weeks so it’s always good to keep popping back. Anyway, this was my first experience of real India, so I was eager to look around. It was here I discovered that pashmina isn’t actually what we all wear at home, but actually a luxury item. However, managed to tear myself away from the scarves, as I had resolved not to buy anything for the first few weeks. I had lunch, and trusted Kathryn’s judgement on what to get – a paneer masala, which was a curried cottage cheese in this wrap type thing, it was gorgeous either way!

 After that we met up with Hannah and Abbie, who are living at Sushma’s with me, and also the boys, Chris and Sam. We split up from Kathryn and wandered round the shops again. I had told the boys expressly not to let me buy anything, but as we strolled past a shoe stall I couldn’t help but be drawn by some brightly embroidered slippers. I stepped over; surely there was no harm in looking? At once, the man singled me out and insisted I tried a pair on.. I did, and as expected, they did not fit. I gestured in despair, secretly elated that they didn’t have my unexpectedly large size in stock. However, moments later, he’s brandishing another pair at me. I try them on, and elation mingles with despair as they fit. He asks for 850 rupees. I make a ‘pft’ noise, like a seasoned haggler and use my last tactic to prevent myself from buying these beautiful but impractical shoes; I say 450 rupees. He shakes his head and says ’750?’ I respond with a sigh, ’500 rupees is really the highest I can go…’ confidant that he won’t go that low. So imagine my surprise when moments later I find a pair of impossible slippers in a plastic bag in my hand and my wallet a little lighter. The boys were impressed though, as I was with myself! Although hopefully my good sense will prevail a little more for the rest of my stay here.

We take the metro back home and call it a day; I lie back on my amazing bed and read and finally sleep.

Monday morning is my first day at work, and Kathryn meets me at half ten to take me to Katha. We take a rickshaw and arrive at this amazingly beautiful building. There’s a giant dinosaur board outside, which makes the whole place look very friendly. We go inside and up two flights of stairs into the office, which has exposed brickwork and high ceilings and – thank goodness – fans everywhere. I read the annual report of Katha, suddenly very awed of what they’ve achieved, and meet Ekta, who sends me their style guides and gives me some tasks. However, Jetlag soon catches up with me and, pleading exhaustion, I return home and sleep for the rest of the day.

Tuesday is my first time of getting to Katha by myself, so at 9.30 prompt, I wait in C Block Market for an autorickshaw. This is the first of what will be many despairing moments, waiting in a sea of people for a rickshaw. The rickshaw driver is a god at rush hour. He calmly and indolently pulls up to the pavement and inclines his head towards the first in a queue of people, they explain where they want to go, but perhaps it is not the direction the driver wants to go today, or the person is not willing to pay the extortionate fares that rush hour inevitably brings, and it is to a torrent of pleas or abuse that the driver slowly moves on to the next person in the queue, and so on, and so forth, until luck and impatience unite in a customer and he drives off, leaving a crowd of disgruntled pedestrians in his cloudy wake. And if you are lucky enough to get a rickshaw within an hour of arriving at the kerb then you still have to hope that he knows where you’re going, or that he won’t take a particularly convoluted route as the meter goes, or that you won’t break down on the middle of the highway, or that he won’t stop and pick other people up while you’re still in the rickshaw. I can’t even begin to describe the terrifying experiences I’ve had in a rickshaw, it seems the only things that are safe on the road are the cows.

To begin I was given a copy editors test, which had basic proof reading and blurb writing skills. There was a bit of a leftfield question, where you had to write a story including words from a list, mine was this:

’It’s time for school!’ mama declared
to all her kids’ delight,
she pushed the children, 1, 2, 3,
into the morning light
and waved through the glass window as
they skipped out of her sight

’So I shall take the bus’ said One,
not wanting to be late
’I like to get there early and
be the first one through the gate,”
and with a smile, he sat right down
by the bus stop to wait.

’But I am going to take my bike’
said Two, ‘it is so quick
that I can cycle to market
to buy a new lipstick.”
and with a smile, she pedalled on
through all the mud and bricks

Three didn’t mind he was alone
to walk through cars and crowds
he trotted on towards his class
his head above the clouds
but when he arrived at his school
he stopped and gasped aloud

”Oh no, I’m late. I’ve missed the start
and One and Two are there,
how can I enter the lesson?
I can’t… I do not dare!”
but teacher’s helper beckoned in
while everyone else stared.

”Oh,  you should know, number three,
it’s not very clever,
to wait outside when we learn to
work hard and endeavor.
Just remember this; with learning it’s
 better late than never”


 My first week’s work at Katha was primarily researching and designing a children’s section for the website. I was a little cowed at the prospect, I mean, the first stage was easy, researching current children’s educational websites. But when Mumta (my boss-ish) asked me to design the architecture of the website, I admit I was stumped. I had no idea where to begin! I think my CV says ‘competent in web design’ under skills actually… although I meant that to refer to the basic HTML that I used on MySpace. Perhaps that needs to be undone… After it became apparent that I had no idea what I was doing Mumta sent me a book from a new series they’re releasing. They’re each based on a different kind of development, for instance, mine was themed on social development. I was to design a series of lesson plans to accompany the book. It wasn’t exactly an easy task, I had to design lessons for 8 year olds on themes like overpopulation and deforestation and inflation to be taught in their second or third language. However, a week later and I think I’m getting there. I have a meeting with Mumta tomorrow on my progress.

The best thing about my work is the Chai lady, who three times a day will come round with a tray of tiny mugs of Chai and offer everyone one. Chai is this amazing spiced milky tea that I’m determined to bring home with me. I’ve already acquired a recipe for myself and all I need now is some practice.

Lunchtimes at work are fairly dismal. The only place selling food nearby is the ubiquitous Café Coffee. It’s sort of a downmarket Starbucks, and they’re getting to know me in there. It is, however, very expensive for India (£2 for a meal!) and I’m looking at alternative ways of feeding myself at lunch.

At the weekend we stayed in Delhi, new girl Sara and new boy Johnny joined us. We started off by going to Lodhi gardens, a beautiful parkland not too far away. Then we went to Connaught place in search of a southern Indian restaurant recommended to us by Sushma. Connaught place is tourist central, but I think we avoided most of the traps, but got waylaid on our journey by the presence of several markets. The A/C market is two underground concentric circles of what seems to be the same 8 stalls looped over and over again. We could have been the only shoppers in there, with so many stallholders lining the walls calling us over to them. It was a bit dreamlike, going round and round in circles, turning down the same awful shoes or beautiful saris or gold watches over and over again. I was leading the pack, but only so when I veered towards a stall, the others could rein me in. One man happened to catch me in conversation when I was looking at some particularly hideous shorts that look like what used to be called bloomers, in a floral pink pattern. I found myself, out of habit, bartering with him, getting him down from 350 to 150. He’d bagged them up and thrown them at me. I was horrified, I refused to own these… fortunately, I spied some nicer looking trousers behind him. I told him I would pay 150 for those trousers but not for the shorts… He chuckled, saying that those trousers sold for 550. I just shook my head at him until he brought them down to 150. Feeling fairly smug I paid as he told me that was less than cost price, although I severely doubt that.

Eventually we found our restaurant, only to see a crowd of about 20 people waiting outside it in a scrum. It appears that this restaurant is so popular you have to add yourself to a waiting list and then hope your name is called. We sat and waited in McDonalds for half an hour and then returned, just as our names were called. We each ordered a mixed Thali, which is 8 different dishes, chapatti and rice. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever eaten. I’ve developed a little indian food dance before I tuck into something new and I don’t think a food has ever been more worth celebrating.

On our way back I managed to get sidetracked once more and buy a ornamental rug thing. It’s beautiful and only cost 150 rupees!

On Sunday we went to Delhi Haat again to show Sara around and I fell in love with a teapot that I managed to not buy… so far! We then went to Sarojini market which is a cheap cheap market where I bought some more trousers and a dress (bartered from 500 to 150) and then to EDF mall to purportedly find a women’s festival, but we couldn’t see it, so instead we went to Costa then went home.

A reasonably successful first week, I’d say. 

Monday, 19 July 2010

In which we climb a lot of steps and decide monkeys aren't that nice...

We arrived in Koh Phi Phi at about 11, and it was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly quaint. It's got a population of about 2,000, and it's entirely based around tourism - but despite this, it doesn't feel horrible and rammed. There are no high rise blocks of apartments, and the winding roads are just about wide enough for a motorbike and sidecar, but little else. Therefore, there are no tuktuks, few motorbikes and even fewer pushbikes. Everything is well within walking distance, and people tend to cluster around small areas on the island. Things get progressively more expensive the closer you are to the pier, but fortunately we were well away from that.

I am almost certain our accommodation had been sold to us on the idea that it was 600m away from the beach. It may well have been, perhaps on a map - but it was at least 20 minutes away from most things, up a steep hill, around three sides of a reservoir and beyond the "waste collection garden" - an ingenious solution to deal with waste, by planting flowers all over it - unfortunately, it doesn't conceal the smell at all and someone has scrawled "poo garden" on top of the engraved sign - so that was how we came to know it. When we reached a sign to our resort, we were ecstatic to finally be there... however, upon reaching it, we saw that each small bungalow was perched precariously on the side of a steep hill that was undergoing building works. Ours was 102 steps up roughly hewn steps with hoses and logs of wood scattered randomly around just hoping to trip you up. We fought our way up and got into what was actually quite a pretty room. The view would have been lovely if not for the thick trees obscuring our view of the two beaches. Oh well.

We soon grew to hate this room. There was no air conditioning, no hot water, no english language tv channels, an ants nest beneath one of the beds and ineffective mosquito nets. As a result, we spent as little time as possible there - but we still calculated we climbed up and down those 102 steps at least 3 times a day... over 600 steps! my poor calfs!

We went straight to the beach, which was glorious and beautiful, and had bbq'd corn on the cob - delicious :) then that night we went out properly for the first time in a while. There are reps with flyers like on every clubbing island in europe, so you know where to go. They drink from buckets here also, fairly dangerous amounts of alcohol, but kemi and I fancied ourselves hardened to their alcohol levels and threw ourselves into the spirit of the thing with a gusto. We went to the irish bar - as always, but they didn't serve guinness! We were appalled! And the 'girls night' playlist consisted of green day and guns and roses.. even more unimpressed. However, we met two boys - luke and jack, who we bumped into almost constantly until we left Ko Phi Phi, so that was nice. We ended the night in Stones Bar - a dubstep bar at the far end of the beach that kem and i went mental for. Most people end the night there, chilling out on the mats by the fire-adorned sand sculptures, but Kem and I were the last ones dancing as usual. Music finishes at 1.30 officially, but i don't think anyone was complaining. We sat under the pagoda and chatted to a group of lads from london until the wee hours and then returned home, exhausted but conscious that we'd had an excellent time.

The next day, we woke up late, grabbed ourselves some lunch and booked a tour for the next day. We figured that there was no time left to achieve anything real, so we decided to go to the viewpoint. People - and the guidebook - had warned us of the sheer effort required to get to it, but living where we lived, we thought we could handle it.

We did manage it. Just about. It was 186 metres above sea level - which is where we were! Pure, seemingly endless, steps going upwards relentlessly. After the 1st viewpoint, the steps peter out and you're left with a dirt track to the top. Such a mission! However, when we got there it was -very- pretty..not sure if it was pretty in equal measure to how hard it was getting up, but i'm glad i did it.

When we reached the bottom, we bumped into Luke and Jack from the night before, who were carrying a bag of bananas. We quizzed them on this, and they said there were monkeys near their accommodation and they were going to feed them. We tagged along, and indeed, there -were- monkeys. However, they swarmed around luke and jack, and i took the bag of bananas off them... then the biggest monkey snatched the bag of bananas from my hand and they all started growling at us. So. Scary. There was a french couple near us, and the man had the right idea, he was growling back and making himself big so that they would be intimidated. However, we were not so trained and instead just shrieked and ran away.. before cautiously returning.. and repeating. One smaller monkey seemed quite friendly with the boys, but its mother ran over and started screeching at them.. so we decided to flee, while we were still intact.

We returned home and had a nap before going out again.. this time we went to Reggae Bar - recommended by the guidebook - but while we were disappointed there was no actual reggae playing, there was a thai kickboxing platform in the middle, and people would get free buckets if they volunteered to fight in there with their friends. While Kem and I were tempted, we erred on the side of caution and watched everyone else instead. It was hilarious! We ended up at Stones again, and when we decided to go home, thailand decided to monsoon shortly after. Very uncool. You get used to the rain, but sometimes, at inopportune moments like those, it's still very very very annoying.

Friday, 16 July 2010

In which an excellent morning is balanced out by a dreadful night..

6AM is far too early to be getting up on holiday. Nonetheless, we wearily shoved our clothes into our rucksacks that seem unfathomably to be getting heavier with each stop we make, before getting into the van for flight of the gibbon.

We arrived at about 8, and our early bird group was comprised of 3 americans, four israelis (who we had thought were french...) and us. Again, the americans were from florida and california, thus far, no other states have been represented in thailand. Anyway, we met our guides - Cash and Bird - who were hilarious. They had absolutely no problem in pushing us off platforms 45 feet in the air and then rocking the wire back and forth so we swung dangerously (or so it seemed). It was such an excellent adventure, they loved torturing kemi because she wouldn't stop laughing (only tempered by screams of terror as Cash would push her off or drop her really fast down an abseiling section without warning) so perhaps she bore the brunt of their hilarious sadism.

When we were finished, we went to a waterfall where I decided to have a nap while kemi clambered and scrambled to the top with everyone else... after that we had a lemongrass juice which was lovely, and then a veritable feast for lunch. At about 1 we returned to our accommodation - only we had no room and nothing to do. We decided to have another go at finding Love at First Bite, only this time we took a tuktuk - who got as lost as we did! He thought we wanted th. chang mai soi 1, but such a place didn't exist, we actually wanted th. chang mai lamphun soi 1... I know! What a mistake to make!.....

We finally got there and it was beautiful, calming, green... the selection of cakes was fantastic too! Kemi opted for a hot chocolate, while i had iced chocolate and we both picked the brownie sundae. We had decided to spend the whole afternoon there, eating cakes in a decadent fashion. However, shortly after kemi finished her brownie sundae, and i had ordered a mango cheesecake, she began feeling quite ill. We decided to return to the hotel, where i despaired because my feet had swollen to the size of small children. While I tried every means possible to shrink my feet, kemi sat quietly by the pool, looking really really pale. Then she ran to the toilet and was horribly sick. She kept being sick at regular intervals until we were picked up. When we got to the airport - early, we set up camp near our check in desk, and a safe distance from the bathroom. A lovely man and his son inquired after kemi's health and offered her some medicine (we read the label, and it was a new packet, definitely fine) which she promptly threw up. After we checked in - and were hit in the face by a horrible luggage charge from AirAsia, we tried to find first aid, but gave up and kem just curled up on the floor and tried to sleep. At this point, i really wanted to take her to hospital, but instead I found first aid myself, and walked kemi there. The nurse- who had been happily watching thai soaps and eating dinner until then - was an angel. Kem sat down on the bed, and had her blood pressure taken, as well as being given anti cramping pills, anti vomit pills and a host of other things meant to make her better... if only she could keep it down.

Our seats were upgraded so kem was near the toilet, but it didn't make the flight any better. Poor kemi slept and threw up in turn, and it was horrible to see, but she refused to go to the hospital when we got to Phuket. We were exhausted, and when we got to the hotel in Phuket we didn't even care that there were cockroaches in the bathroom, and just passed out in a nicely airconditioned room.

The next day, we trudged through the mire that is Phuket to get to the beach and lay there all day. Stupidly, I fell asleep. I woke up a brilliant shade of lobster, which means that now, i'm not a cool tanned backpacker type, i am a sunburnt tourist. The distinction is v. important in how the thais treat you, so v. v. annoyed about that. Kem was still queasy, but managed to order a pizza at the harley davidson restaurant (we had given up on thai food, the idea of greasy noodles or fried vegetables made us both want to be even iller..) even  if she only ate half of it. We then went home and watched about 6 hours of Universal.. which is essentially a crime channel, so we watched Criminal Minds, Psyche, Life and about a gazillion other things. Fox News is the only english speaking news channel out here, so we're choosing to be ignorant of the goings on the world, especially after we accidentally caught the o'reilley factor and bill o'reilley spouting off about obama's misinterpretation of collective salvation... such. rubbish. We had an early night after that - had to be up horribly early again the next day for our transfer to Ko Phi Phi.

In which we vespa to find a sandwich..

So. Having awoken ridiculously late, we resolved upon getting ourselves scooters for the day and exploring the city - we had been somewhat ashamed that our only experience of it so far has been the night market, the english pub, and mcdonalds.

We went downstairs, avoided the clause that said it was necessary to have a driving licence and signed our rights away, eager to get on the vespa. Now. I can't drive, I have zero understanding of the highway code, and I failed my cycling proficiency test in year 6. I don't know what part of me thought this was a good idea. We practiced in the back streets, kemi whizzing along, and I, nervous as anything, trying to understand that if i squeezed my hands from nerves, we would go faster. Eventually, we reached a crossroads. A car was coming up behind me and i panicked. I thoroughly forgot the back brake existed, accelerated, freaked out, held the front brake, put my feet down and prayed. The result: holes in my shoes, a vespa on its side in the middle of the road, and thai people laughing at me from every direction. It was this that made me decide that perhaps biking wasn't my thing, so I returned mine and sat on the back of Kemi's bike. She turned out to be fantastic. However, we needed petrol, and in attempting to follow some bad directions, we ended up near the airport, very, very, very far out from where we needed to be. It was only with the directions of friendly local people and a lot of sign language that we made it back to the city walls.

The whole purpose of our expedition had been to find two food places, one called Amazing Sandwich, and one called Love at First Bite. Now, at the hotel, a receptionist had drawn us directions on a map to the sandwich bar, (chiang mai has a horribly complicated system of one way roads..) and after three hours of struggling, getting lost, losing hope, finding hope and renewed enthusiasm for our sandwiches, we drew up outside a distinctly uninspiring grey building with the words "sandwicth bar" inscribed tinily on a plaque. We blanched. This couldn't possibly be the place - where was the amazingness?! I cautiously stepped inside - it was empty - and attempted to converse with a waitress who didn't speak a word of english, couldn't read a map and would have been the worst charades partner in the world. I mimed eating a sandwich with a quizzical expression and she just burst into peals of embarrassed laughter. Who knows what she thought i wanted! In the end, i cut my losses and retreated with kemi and got out the guide book. Kemi's guidebook had agreed with the receptionist, mine had said it was on a different road, so we tried the address stated in mine, and got there in an alarmingly short time - although it was still three hours since we set out. Needless to say, our sandwiches were amazing. It was like subway but on a whole new level. You chose a bread type, two meats, four vegetables, 3 cheeses, two sauces and then a side. Oh my goodness. SO worth it.

However, now it was 5pm and we had but an hour to find Love at First Bite, a cake shop - we were informed - of such amazing cakes that we had no choice but to hunt it down - plus, i had been craving real cake for a while now. We searched in vain for about an hour and a half, and then conceded defeat and returned wearily to the accommodation. We returned Kem's bike - undamaged! We were still alive, and hadn't done anything ridiculously stupid - except accidentally going down an unsignposted one way street, and veering off into what looked like chaing mai's hidden red light district.

That night we returned to the night market to buy shorts and trousers for flight of the gibbon the next day, and we returned at about 11, exhausted and needing to sleep since we were up at 6 the next day, to pack, check out and go gibboning.