Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On the road again...

After a bit of hassle finding a way back to the Orphanage from Darjeeling we decided on the following: Darjeeling to Siliguri (3 hrs/jeep), to New Jaipalgur (.5 hour/rickshaw), Mughal Sarai (20 hrs/train), Varanasi (.5 hours rickshaw), Bareilly (15 hrs/train), Banbassa/orphanage (3 hrs/bus).

This trip took us 60 hours with 2 overnight trains being the only opportunity to sleep. On the trip we encountered a pyramid scheme salesman, 2 transvestites, a hissing cobra 20cm from Brad’s face and countless beggars, hawkers and a whole family enthusiastic to teach Brad Indian card games. The final hurdle on our return journey was 1km from home when we had to cross a river on foot (the bridge was swept away 12 months ago) because the water was too deep for buses to cross. This we did, laden with backpacks, weary with travel and in pitch black. Luckily we had Rick and some of the hostel boys waiting on the other side to drive us the rest of the way. Miriam had felt ill the entire journey with a slight fever, headaches and sore throat but recovered quickly after a complete day of bed rest the following day.


After Kolkata we were going to Darjeeling. A place in North-Eastern India where it is no further than 100km to 4 other countries – China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. On the train trip up we met a young women who was visiting her family in a remote village East of Darjeeling. She moved away from home to the big smoke and had since landed a dream job of working 12 hour days in a call centre speaking to Canadian’s about their phone plans. I didn’t think much of the position but she seemed like she was the luckiest girl in the world. Her English was very good and we spent quite a lot of time talking about her aspirations, her pending arranged marriage and family life. It was a rare insight into the mind of a “true” Indian (the ones at the orphanage don’t count).

We always arrange our arrival into a new city for the morning, leaving us plenty of time to organise taxis, hotels and eating without having to rush - this makes for better decisions and less harried travellers. Darjeeling is an ex-British hill-station designed for the dual role of summer retreat where the higher altitude makes for cooler temperatures, and it’s suitability as India’s (arguably the worlds) premier tea plantations. The weather was Indeed cooler with all of us breaking out the jackets and jumpers for the first time in India.

As the train cannot make it all the way into the hills due to the elevation we were forced to take a 3 hour Jeep journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The 3 hour journey ended up being 4.5 hours due to a huge procession of school children blocking the road to traffic and yelling something about “We want Ghorkaland, we want Justice” it was quite interesting to sit on the side of the road and see so many kids (1000’s). Their mob-chanting was really quite practised – much more vocal than an equivalent Aussie mob would be.

After arriving and organising a hotel our first stop was for a pot of famous Darjeeling tea at a very quaint cafe on the edge of the mountain – the views here are quite breathtaking I hear but all we saw was a grey wall of cloud, something we were to see a lot of over the next 3 days. We were cheered by the excellent quality of the tea and it was served black, with milk and sugar separate – whereas the rest of India has Chai (loads of milk and sugar pre-added). We were looking for some scones, jam and cream to go with it but we had to make do with some custard rolls instead.

For the next 3 days we explored Darjeeling, walking through the narrow, steep and winding roads and visited the Zoo, tea gardens, Botanic Gardens and Tenzing Norgay’s Mountain Museum. On a clear day you can actually see Everest from Darjeeling but all we managed was a 30-second glimpse of a snow peak through a gap in the clouds. The real highlight of the trip was meeting up with a group of kids who escorted us around the Botanic Gardens and solemnly signing our arms with their names at the end – the 4 colour pen used was donated to them at the end and they were pretty pleased with their foreign encounter.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

You say Calcutta, we say Kolkata (by Miriam)

All our train trips have been in Sleeper Class (average cost of $7 per trip). For safe keeping (of me & our gear), I get the upper bunk & curl up with our pack at my head & my feet poking over the other end into the corridor. Not the most comfortable way to travel, but I expect it’s much nicer than being squeezed into cattle class, and much cheaper than being in an air-conditioned sleeper. You wake to hoards rushing up and down the corridor chanting “Chai, Kopi, Chai – Chai, Kopi, Chai”, “Parnee, Parnee, Parnee”, “Chana, Chana, Chana” (translated to “Tea, Coffee, Tea”, “Water”, “Potent smelling chickpeas with onion”), along with beggers, sweepers, transvestites & many more asking for money. A cup of Chai (Rs 5 or 13c) is our favoured wake up choice.

After a quick ferry trip from the train station, and numerous attempts at hiring taxi’s for a reasonable price, we resorted to walking to the hotel area. This took us past “Eden Gardens” the home of cricket in India. Unfortunately, no one was home & the cricket ground was unremarkable from the outside. I expect we will make the 24 or so hour trip to Kolkata again when cricket is in town.

Walking down hotel strip, we started our search for a bed. It ended up that our hotel room with hot water & flushing toilets – didn’t. “Have running water” was Tony’s response to the staffs requests for a tip. I felt much more at ease with our 2nd hotel room, even when we came back to find our nicely laundered clothes strewn across the floor, and faeces and urine displayed on our bed. Brad maintains a monkey had a party whilst we were out, the hotel said it was a cat (perhaps where the term cat-burglar comes from). They accepted our requests for new bedding and we closed our windows after that. Tony splurged on an air-conditioned balcony room, and gladly shared the balcony with us in the evenings for hours of people watching.

We visited the “Mother House” and read up on the life of Mother Theresa, saw where she lived & is entombed. She sounds like a remarkable woman. I was impressed by her focus on meeting peoples immediate needs of food, medical care etc. She gave up everything for the poor & needy of India, but I also think perhaps she gained more by doing so. I found it very inspirational.

We visited the Victoria Memorial, a massive white building – viewed the museum & gallery within and walked through the lovely gardens. For a place where affection to the opposite gender is not often show in public, there sure was a lot of hand holding & cuddling going on (so much so that this gets a mention in the Lonely Planet guide).

Keep your eyes out, as my TV career is set to take off on October 8th - Sony TV. Walking along one day a TV crew saw potential in Tony, Brad & I doing a couple of lines in a commercial for DPL (Dance Premier League). We had to learn our lines in Bengali (easier said than done), then recite them to the camera with loads of enthusiasm. After numerous attempts, the crew decided to call it quits with Tony & Brad, and decided to stick with me as their main star (talk about stepping out of your comfort zone)....

Popped up out of the Metro, onto the busiest street we’d ever experienced (not an inch of personal space available). Ate scrumptious hot Kati rolls (Indian Yiros equivalent). Spent hours walking many Km’s through the city. Went to the flower markets. Got followed for what seemed like hours by touts wanting us to follow them into the markets, and a gang of beggars.

Next stop Darjeeling.......

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We’re Back....

After 12 days of travelling around northern India we are back and eager to blog all about it. We got back to the orphanage yesterday after a mammoth 60 hour journey home – I’ll blog about the trip in instalments as it’ll be too long otherwise.


Our first stop on the journey was Varanasi which involved a 4 hour bus trip, dinner in Bareilly and then an overnight train. It was our first train trip in India and we were pretty impressed with the service as it was only an hour late and the betel-spit marks around the windows were hardly noticeable. Being westerners, it is customary to have a crazy guy sit and talk to you in Hindi – normally this is accepted as part and parcel of being here and ignoring them is the best way to deal with it. This guy however was a little harder to ignore due to his garment being a male mini-skirt. I’ve heard unconfirmed rumours of the Scottish wearing nothing under their kilts and I now unfortunately know they must have picked up this habit from the Indians. Once the train finally arrived we had a sleeper cabin so we slept most of the trip and awoke refreshed and ready to explore the oldest city in India and arguably, the world.

We thought the old part of the city was only 500m away and the auto rickshaw (3-wheeler) drivers were trying to rip us off by charging Rs100 ($2.50) to get there. We weren’t newbies to their tricks so we walked off from the main taxi rank and flagged down a pedal rickshaw who offered to take us for only Rs40 ($1). Our map was wrong however and as the poor skinny Indian guy puffed and strained his way through kilometres of crowded streets we felt increasingly bad – so much so that when we got to an incline Tony got out and pushed! We tipped him handsomely Rs10 ($.25) which he was quite thankful for.

Once we got to the old part of the city we began to search for accommodation – using the lonely planet as a guide we wandered around the narrow alleyways, fending off touts and con-artists until we finally decided on a backpacker favourite “Shanti Guesthouse” where due to the low season the rates were a princely Rs150 ($3.75) per night!

I interrupt this blog to give you a ridiculously brief lesson of Hinduism and Varanasi’s significance otherwise the rest won’t make sense – Hindu’s cremate their dead, believing that the best place to do this in the whole wide world is on the Ganges river steps (ghats) of Varanasi where they will receive a free ticket to Hindu heaven. Hundreds or thousands per day are cremated and the ashes (and any remaining bits) are scattered in the Ganges.

The hotel location turned out to be right in the thick of it - so close to the burning Ghats that the cremation smoke stung our eyes from the rooftop restaurant where we had a uninterrupted view over the entire city. After a quick lunch we set off to explore the ghats and it wasn’t long before we realised that lunch beforehand was maybe not a great idea. Within 50 metres of our hotel we had entered the busiest burning ghat in Varanasi which was currently cremating about 6 bodies in separate pyres. We had been warned about not taking photos which seemed like a macabre thing to do anyway and watched with mixed feelings as we saw the ceremony being performed.

It’s not easy to describe this experience as it was a mixture of emotions and different for each of us. Other foreigners we met used words like “beautiful”, “spiritual” and “calming” while Miriam described it as “heavy” and “dark”. I had a few angles that I saw it from – from a practical view that cremation is a clean way of disposal (if done completely), and the public way it is performed reminds everyone that this is where we all end up at some point. Afterwards sitting up in the rooftop restaurant with about a dozen foreigners (Israeli, French, Spanish, Slovenian, British, American, Aussie) we talked about death and discussed what life is all about. This discussion is something that doesn’t happen in Western culture as death is too hidden from us, making it easier to ignore.

That night and the next day was a bit less sombre and we set off to explore some of the ghats where bodies aren’t burnt and enjoyed just watching the locals carrying out their lives. One thing that continually amazed us was the Ganges water being used for washing, bathing and drinking when all around was garbage, cow carcasses and bodies (lepers, cobra victims, pregnant women, children and sadhu’s are just sunk, not cremated). Hinduism says that Ganges water is holy and can cure all your ill’s – all I know is that within days of drinking it, I wouldn’t ever need a doctor again.

We finished up our Varanasi tour by timing the trip back to the train station poorly, ending in a 300 metre sprint in humid heat to arrive late, only finding out that our train had been delayed for 4 hours. Our next stop was Calcutta but that's a different story........

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Having a break

Tony, Miriam and I are off to explore a few places in India - Varanasi, Kolkata and Darjeeling. We'll be gone for about 10 days and can't guarantee we'll visit an Internet cafe in our travels. When we get back I'm sure there'll be plenty of interesting stories but until then you'll all just have to be patient.

An interview with Dhoni...I mean Tony...

Brad: Hi Tony, fancy meeting you here – who are you and where did you come from?

Tony: Hi Brad. I’m Tony, to answer the standard Indian questions - I’m from England, 42, unmarried (no kids), a software engineer and now live in Australia – I’m currently on tour, on the return part of a trip to see my folks in Sheffield, England.

Brad: Yeah yeah, enough about you. On to more important matters – where do you know me from?

Tony: I know you from work where we met in 2001 when we were developing websites together. We subsequently became friends and I haven’t been able to get rid of you since!

Brad: Thank you for that glowing tribute... What have you been up to while you’ve been here in India?

Tony: I arrived in Delhi and fended off the locals for several days, went and saw the Taj Mahal, then went north to Amritsar and watched the entertaining Pakistan-India border ceremony. Also on this side-trip I went and saw the impressive Golden Temple where I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t just a tourist trap but of great significance to Hindus.

I arrived here at the orphanage a few days ago with great trepidation (innate fear of church, children and leprosy). I went to my first church

service since school and didn’t get struck by lightning, I’m also now much more at ease around kids of all ages - even if they’re clambering all over my head and shoulders! Tomorrow is the final chapter in my phobia-busting regime when I will be meeting the lepers. My time has been spent here walking through the jungle, playing volleyball, chess and cards, dancing like Michael Jackson (which entertained the girls). My main contribution though has been to help out with Maths tuition and assisting in improving the performance of the website (www.indianorphanage.com).

Brad: So you’ve enjoyed yourself? What do you think of this place?

Tony: Yes, it’s been non-stop, entertaining and rewarding all rolled into one. All these kids seem very happy and I can’t help but think that without this place there would be 120 beautiful kids that would be homeless, without a future or even dead. I think that coming here has shown me that a few dedicated people with little money can make a huge difference to so many lives – it’s really quite humbling when you’re seeing it with your own eyes.

Brad: What now?

Tony: I’ve got 3 more weeks travelling around India until I go back home to Australia. When I get back I’ll be continuing to help out with the website and also make a donation towards their new school project. I’ve travelled to many places around the world (6 continents) and this has been one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had – and I was only here 4 days!

Brad: Cool – I’m glad you came and I’m also looking forward to the next 10 days travelling to Varanasi, Kolkata and Darjeeling with you.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hairy times.....

My hair was getting a bit long (almost an inch!) and I expressed a desire to have it shortened mechanically. Rick, one of the management here, recommended that I approach Daya (pronounced die-ya) who is one of the “big boys” (17 years old) to get it cut. Daya and I go way back as he was the interpreter to the Bareilly beggar kids and he is also in the year 10 class I assist with.

There’s a big difference though in having someone interpret for you and trusting them to have a go at your head with scissors. My fears were allayed quite quickly when he started snipping quite professionally, using a jumbo sized comb to achieve the desired length (very short).

My fears returned when I realised that he was using a plain razor blade to shape the edges but he didn’t shed so much as a drop of blood, much to the disappointment I’m sure of Miriam and Rohit (another smaller kid here). I must say I was pretty impressed by the standard of haircut and tipped the barber enough money for a Mountain Dew soft-drink (50 cents).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Stretching the Rupee

Some generous people have provided us with some money to distribute as we see fit and I thought that it's about time that we provided some feedback on where this money has gone.

With my uncle and auntie's money we were able to buy stationary items for all the year 10's, along with pocket dictionaries which they are using for their english and business studies.

In addition to this we also purchased 2 of the 4 UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supplies) which will be used for the new computer room that is currently being fitted out.

To keep my Auntie happy (she's a fantastic cook), we also bought for the kitchen a "Mixy" (food processor) which the girls in the kitchen are very excited about as it will make their job much easier.

Our Church had also given us some funds and so far these have gone towards a new fridge for the kitchen which is used to store the milk, the other fridge had broken down and the milk was being stored in a fridge some distance from where it was needed. In addition they are also paying for bathroom renovations for the big boys hostel (about 20 boys aged 15-18) which was pretty disgusting - work has already commenced on this project and should be completed in a couple of weeks time.

My neighbour contributed enough to purchase 4 ceiling fans, 1 of which will be used in a small office room and the others are being installed in the new computer room – this will keep kids, teachers and most importantly the computers cool(er) than they would otherwise be.

Many others have requested the bank account details and as their money comes in we'll have no trouble purchasing much-needed items for the kids and post feedback on the blog. A little bit of money goes a long way over here (for example 1 UPS costs $35, 1 cornetto = 35 cents) so if you're interested in helping out feel free to send me an email and I'll get back to you with the various ways this can occur. If you've got a spare week, 2 or 25 we'd also be keen to see you over here - you'll get much more out of it than you put in...guaranteed!