Sunday, July 03, 2005
Yesterday, I went to the 6th INTAF world assembly. You can find the report here.

Incidentally, if there is anyone in the world still reading this, you really should check out the blog I have running, which will be updated far more than this one: john heron project
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Someone pointed out to me that renal damage was indeed kidney failure.

Well, dammit, Jim. I'm a freelance writer, not a doctor.


One of the things that my all-too-brief time in India taught me was that even if your own language is the lingua franca, that doesn't mean you should expect to understand it. In Delhi, they fire it at you like a machine gun. Even when they speak slowly, it's hard for someone who's only been there for a few weeks to decipher that thick accent (on the other hand, if you tell taxi drivers the name of your destination using an approximation of an Indian accent, you'll have a much easier time of it).

So, anyway, there's this one night after Tracy went home where I headed back to my room. I saw Prados Pati out on the verandah. He'd been cooking; his hand was covered in dough. He wanted to talk about his research paper that I had proofread for him or something. And then we started talking about food.

Prados and Araja cooked together, mainly because they couldn't stand Uttar Pradesh food. Prados apparently misses the food back home. So he says to me, he misses the food back home.

He says he especially misses being able to eat "piss".


You know. Piss.

And I'm there, thinking, peas?

No, piss. Like meat. Don't you eat piss back home?

Um, no, I can't say I do.

You must eat piss back in England. I think many people eat piss. With potatoes.

This goes on for about five minutes. Eventually, he says, no, no, look! and with his finger he draws the outline of a fish on the dust in the verandah rail.

Oh, right. Fish. You mean fish! Yeah. OK. Yes, we do eat fish.

Yes! Like I said, he says. Piss.
The Marvels and Mysteries of Science
Paul's photies from APK Science Fair.
Friday, December 03, 2004
The New Adventures of Pablo

Paul's travels continue.
Pain in the Ear
Yeah, I know. No excuse for not having updated this for a while. Lack of motivation, mostly.

Anyway, this last week, I've had earache. Actually, it's called Infective Otitis Externa, and I've had it six years. I picked it up from sleeping in a damp tent at a festival back in 1998. Usually, it just means that my ears get itchy every so often. Every once in a while, it flares up like mad and hurts so much that my balance and hearing goes and one side of my face is consumed with shooting pains. It flared up this week. It nearly spoiled my enjoyment of Bride and Prejudice in the Arts Centre Cinema on Wednesday, in fact.

Anyway, you're not here to read about my ailments. The point is, that it hit me on Day 8. By Day 10, it was hurting so bad that I had to go see the doctor. Paul had at this time a bad case of the squits, so he accompanied me. From the journal:

So we were ready to go at 1.45pm. But, working on India Tome meant that we ended up sitting around for a while with the Gupta kids (see picture below) before Rameshi the jeepster guy rocked up and said "chalo". So of we went. Except...

As the jeep plays its little tune (even vehicle reversing alarms have comedy ringtones in UP) to reverse out of the project, Stephanie and Claartje run up. Paul winds down his window.

Are you going to Bilari?
says Stephanie. Cool! Can we come?

They are, of course, intending to come to Bilari with us to mitch off this afternoon's Hindi lesson, but since they climb in anyway, we're like, hell, yeah, why not?

And then Claartje gets out and runs off for a wee, so we're waiting again. While she's gone, Jyoti appears and says, Have you seen Clara? I have a package for her. We explain that she's coming to Bilari with us, which is good, be cause it means that they don't think she's done a runner.

She leaves us with the parcel; Claartje reappears and we're finally off, to the sound of squeals of delight from the girls sitting either side of me, as Claartje discovers a bundle of paper, pens, sweets, and stuff sent by her mum back in the Hague. Chocolate - melted and squishy - is duly shared among the inhabitants of the jeepster, including Rameshi, and, as we arrive at the outskirts of Bilari, the girls begin to sing. Loudly. Beginning with Yellow Submarine, the girls run through a repertoire of school bus songs, mostly in Dutch. One apparently includes the line "I put a bucket of fat on the table". I have also heard Yes, We Have No Bananas in Dutch.

My life is complete.


So, having left the girls in the jeep, we are taken by Rameshi into the doctor's surgery, past the bloke with the rifle (the doctor, an all-round Good Egg, has been receiving threats directed against his family and has had to employ an armed guard) and into the office. Paul and I sit on a bench in front of the Doctor, an expansive man behind a desk covered with piles of neatly-arranged pills in their blister packs.

Paul explains his diarrhoea and the doctor duly prescribes, but not before quizzing Paul about the best place to stay in London (his daughter is going there).

He turns to me. I explain; he examines my ear. Does this hurt? he says.

Aaaagh! I say.

Hmmm, he says. You have had this for a long time. Have you considered surgery?

Paul will later tell me that I visibly pale at this. White as a sheet.

Anyway, the doc prescribes some industrial-strength antibiotics and the same eardrops they give me back home.


As we drive into the middle of town, the girls continue to sing. Really loudly. In the traffic, the jeep slows to a crawl, and one guy who has the misfortune to be standing right by the jeep gets a blast of Claartje's enthusiastic but, um, well, it's enthusiastic, anyway, rendition of Yes, We Have No Bananas. In Dutch. Right in the ear. Poor guy nearly fell right over.

We are the centre of attention.


Having told everyone that we were going to Bilari, we have a shopping list (paint brushes, turps, fruit), so, as well as the chemists' we had to go the fruit stall, and the paint shop. At the paint shop, our bad Hindi fails us and we ask for turps in about six different ways, until eventually the guy catches on and says, Oh! You mean Terrpantaine!

Um, isn't that what we said?

Then the chemist. Rameshi took us to the chemist's shop, a hole in the wall.

Here, you can buy any drug you want. Prescriptions, see, are basically just shopping lists. If you know what you want, you can buy any medicament you want over the counter.

Anything. Even valium. Or viagra. Well, according to one traveller I met, anyway.


The pills are the size of Werthers' Originals. On the back of the packet, it says they can cause renal damange. And kidney failure. They may also make you go blind. My ear hurts too much right now, though, so I take a couple.

By the following morning, my pain will be completely gone.
Friday, November 19, 2004

Prados Kumar Pati. Also from Orissa, also with a wife and kids left behind, just like Anil and Araja, and, just like his colleagues, dying to get home to his family for Diwali.

Prados is an interesting chap. He is actually - as well as being a lecturer - founder of his own NGO back in Orissa, called SSUD (Society For Social Unity and Development). He showed me a report one day - they do approximately one metric shedload of programs: health, family planning, education, the lot.

However, working for an NGO doesn't feed your wife and son, so here he was, earning a decent wage, far from home. I think that being so far from his family was getting him down (it was clearly getting the other two guys down as well, but with Prados it was the most obvious). As they were packing up the marquee and the tinsel (yes, really) after the INTAF conference, he stood watching them pack up for a minute. He said to me as we watched, "If I wasn't so busy right now, I would find this depressing." He enjoyed the change from the normal order of things. Getting back to the grind was a bit of a blow, really.

Prados is a Brahmin, although as far as I could tell, in real terms this only meant that he had an orange towel and wore the sacred thread over his right shoulder. Although he cooked for himself and Araja, this was aparently because - as I said - he didn't like the local food, and nothing to do with the dietary rules that more conservative Brahmins stick to (if it was, he couldn't have eaten with Araja).

It took me a little while to get to know Prados and Araja. They were reserved types. But then, one day, while I was in the library, I found myself surrounded by staring students. Telling them very politely in my best Hinsdi to go away, I failed to realise that Prados and Araja were standing with them. Muppet. Anyway, apologising profusely to the two of them later that day, we ended up talking for a while, and that sort of broke the ice. Bit of a relief, really.

Prados ran by me some research papers he'd written, so I could correct his English. And also some of his poetry, which Paul also got to see. It was pretty good stuff. And at the end of our stay, Prados wrote a long poem for us, of which I have a copy. I'll have to dig it out and post it, although it may not make a whole lot of sense if you weren't there.

About now, Prados, Anil and Araja should be with their families at Diwali. I wish them and their own the best possible festive season.

Araja Kumar Penthoi. A lecturer like Anil, he lived along the hostel row near me, Paul and Tracy. From Orissa (note: capable of smiling in photos), Araja had left behind a wife and two children. He shared a room with Prados. The two of them cooked together, mainly because they found the food in the canteen unpalatable (no comment), and most nights, and most mornings for that matter, there would be wonderful smells coming from their room. This did not help my cravings one bit.

Dr. Anil Kumar Seni, lecturer in political science, posing beneath my underpants. Originally from the South of India, Anil came from a much more liberal background - he married for love (unthinkable in the APK corner of UP), was a big film fan (actually quite normal in UP, but not talked about so much among teacher types) and is capable of smiling in photos. His wife and children are back in the South, so Anil dissapeared for Dussehra and was looking forward to seeing them again at Diwali. Anil was one of the first people I got to know. This was mainly because he had an easy name to remember (embarrassingly - I'm hopeless with Western names, let alone the Indian ones).
Edit 21/11/4: I decided to pull my long essay from Thursday. In retrospect, It wasn't helpful. There were good bits in it, though which I will probably post later on sometime.

Gandhians and Projects.
Gandhians rock. In the last week at APK there was a conference of grass-roots development workers who were part of the India chapter of INTAF (the INTernernational TAsk Force for the Rural Poor), and I had a small part in that - and even got my picture in the papers! Anyway, one of the committee there was a bloke called Dinesh Chandra, a Gandhian and the secretary of Saran Zilasamagra Vikas, (an organisation in Bihar - I really hope I spelled that right). And he was, like about seventy years old and dressed in that Gandhian homespun thing - dhoti, simple coat, little hat, you get the idea - and he was one of the most fiery and amazing men I have ever met. He was great at the conference, too. The conference was attended by two politicians representing the local area (here is where my grasp of Indian politics is revealed to be shaky and inadequate - I have no idea how important these guys were, but one was described to me as an MP), and Mr. Chandra stands up at the podium right in front of these two guys and gives a blistering, fiery speech about the work that INTAF is doing.

Unfortunately, it was mostly in Hindi, so I didn't have a clue what he was saying. But halfway through, he cried out in English something like: "Our politicans are all thieves and our representatives are a gang of robbers!"

...and then carried on in Hindi. The political guys, sitting behind him, either had fantastic poker faces, didn't catch that bit, or were not paying attention, because they gave no indication of having registered what he said. I later heard from Prados and Penthoi (tell you about them in a minute) that the rest of his talk was pretty much in the same vein. Good stuff.

I ended up giving Mr. Chandra my address; I also swapped addresses with one Devendra Nayak, who runs another development project among tribal peoples in Orissa. One of Mr. Nayak's colleagues sent me a bvery nice e-mail inviting me to go along. I wish I could have done, actually. I'd really like to see Orissa and the work going on there.

I think I'd definitely visit some more projects next time I go out there.
Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Chhotelal (AKA Lala-ji), the head chef at the project. A sweet-natured, accommodating guy, he would grace you with the most serene and benevolent smile you had ever seen as you entered the canteen area. However, like most male Indians in this corner of Uttar Pradesh, the moment you point a camera at him, he goes all po-faced and stands to attention. I ask you. Also, note the big scary tumour on the left-hand side of his face, size of a squash ball. Hope it's benevolent...

My lovely wife, looking radiant as ever, even at breakfast. Bless.

Some of the team (and one of the project residents) at lunch. Background: Mohid the Kitchen Boy; Seated, L-R: Mukesh, Claartje, Paul, Roger, Becci. I can't remember to whom the knees on the left hand side of the picture belong, but they may well be mine and Stephanie's...

Today, we're going to be talking about food. So, here's a picture of Tracy and Stephanie eating lunch.
Having arrived at Amkarpurkashi Rural Polytechnic at the end of Day 2, we were greeted by Mukat, the director and his wife Jyoti, given a tour of the project by Pushpa and Bhavana, shown our rooms, given a brief lesson in Hindi, introduced to the wonders of chai (eugh), and finally, after a cooling off period, fed.

The meal on that first day consisted of Aloo Gobi (that's potato and cauliflower curry to you), rice, dhal (lentils in a hot paste), a chapati (unleavened bread product), some raw onions, a bit of lemon or lime and a banana for afters. This was the pattern for two meals a day, lunch and dinner, for the whole three weeks.

Now this last Sunday, I was in conversation with Mike B, who himself spent three months in India over this last Summer, comparing notes, as you do. Now like me, he was in a predominantly Hindu area, so, like us, he had to go vegetarian. And Mike said to me on Sunday, he said, "Of course, after a while, you just don't miss meat, right?"

Wrong, Mike. Oh, so very wrong.

Now for the first few days, I was quite fond of the meals (apart from breakfast, which was some sort of porridge or rice pud, which I just couldn't bring myself to eat, accompanied by crumbly biscuits and more bananas). They were spicy and filling. Also - and this was a surprise to me, because it's received wisdom among us "enlightened" liberal types that the curry restaurants here don't serve anything remotely like the stuff they really eat in India - the Aloo Sag (potato curry with spinach), the Chana Masalla (chickpea curry) and the Aloo (um, just curried potatoes) are more or less exactly like the vegetarian options they serve up in the Moghul Brasserie (our Indian of choice) down on St. Helen's Road, Swansea. I mean, no one eats Baltis or Chicken Tikka Masalla in India, but the other stuff? That's actually pretty authentic.

However, after ten days or so, I found myself taking smaller and smaller portions. I just couldn't bring myself to keep eating it (admittedly, the bananas were another matter - allowed to ripen on the tree, they tasted miles better than the bananas back home). You don't miss meat?

Humph. I craved meat with an energy that extended to every fibre of my being. It didn't help that Claartje - another frustrated carnivore - and I started torturing each other with descriptions of the stuff we were missing. Mmm, lasagne. Mmm, meat feast pizzas, Mmmm, steak...

OK, there was some variation. Some days the potatoes would get replaced with another vegetable, the colour of the lentils in the dhal did change sometimes (along with minor changes in supplementary ingredients - one day, there were rumours of a tomato), and sometimes you'd have sliced apple, mango or guava instead of bananas. There was one day we had yoghurt for breakfast, and a couple of times, there was this peculiar Indian toast. One day, Lala-ji the chef brought out a tub of mashed potatoes, cooked with milk and butter, especially for us lot, which went down a treat. There was another time that they served up this fruity, tangy stuff which was quite delicious.

By about day 14, I realised, however, that the nauseous feeling that had become my constant companion wasn't actually a symptom of anything other than hunger. For nearly a week, I'd had about three mouthfuls of the main courses - those repetitive, near-identical main courses - at dinner and lunch. Bananas - well, they only get you so far.

Fortunately, Day 14, was the day we went to Moradabad and got PIZZA and real! American! Pringles! But that's another story.

The first meal Tracy cooked for me when I returned to the UK was a big, meaty lasagne. I'm not ashamed of that.
Notes and Queries
An anonymous reader asks: what did the mosquito repellent taste like? Well, Michael, I think it's fair to say that not having brushed my teeth with all that many external-use-only medicinal products, I'm not really qualified to say. I think your best bet is to get hold of a tubeof Odomos and a toothbrush, in order to experience its unique flavour for yourself.

Michael (AKA the Fun Guy from Yuggoth, and not to be confused with the other Mike who reads this) has also asked for the account of the "wild ride to Bilari" I mentioned a few days ago. Patience, grasshopper. I will reveal it when the time is right.

No, I will. Honest.
Monday, November 15, 2004

Govinda practices his dance moves, and Bhavana is amused at something. Harry is in the background.

The team. Left to right: Roger, Paul, Becci, Stephanie, Claartje, Tracy (face obscured, but I know what she looks like, so that's OK), Sophia, me, Harry (short for "Angharad", since you asked).

I don't want to say that we were a bunch of stereotypes or anything, but we numbered: one old hippy, two politically clued but dissatisfied twentysomething professionals, one person on a spiritual quest of self-discovery or something, one recent graduate, two invincible gap year types, and two middle-class Christians suffering from a serious case of White Liberal Guilt.

I'll leave you to work out who was what.
So this morning I pulled out my journal, and started reading back the entries.

Good Lord, I thought. I'm supposed to be doing this kind of thing for a living.

Still, I managed to salvage a few nuggets of atmosphere from my deathly prose. Edited (and oh, how they're edited - be thankful) extracts from the Diary of Wood will be in a different font for ease of recognition or something.

Day 2: Wednesday 13th October. On the Bareilly Express.
Old Delhi Station is the most intimidating place we've yet been. Crowded, filthy, unfriendly.

The four of us (Paul, Harry, Tracy, me) had got up at a ridiculously early time in the morning, like about 4.45, and, checking out of the Y, got a taxi to the station. Even at 5am it was heaving with people and confusing as hell. Having finally made it to the ticket office, we first went to a desk where the guy spoke no English. He waved us on to the next desk. There, the guy was actually asleep. Rousing him, he looked us over and waved us to the next desk. Here, the attendant - a Sikh gentleman - was finally prepared to sell us tickets. As I tried to buy tickets for Tracy and myself, a local tried to elbow in front of me, waving his money in front of my face. By this time I was in no mood to put up with this. I pushed his hand out of the way, and fixing him with what felt like a steely glare (probably more like a bleary gaze, actually), said, wait your turn, mate.

To my astonishment, the guy just stood back and respectfully waited.

The platform - when we finally reached it - smelled of curry, diesel and piss. Homeless people slept naked next to food stalls. Guys hopped off the platform to take a quick dump on the tracks. On the platform, having gradually gathered Sophia, Roger and Becci, Magnificent Seven style (I let Paul be James Coburn, as long as I got to be Yul Brynner. We - perhaps wisely - left it at that, though). The nausea that began to afflict me the moment I first breathed Delhi's stinking air became so intense, I seriously thought I was going to throw up on the platform. I didn't.


There is a beautiful wide-eyed child, sitting opposite me on his father's - or maybe grandfather's - lap; next to the old man, a woman with a covered face holds a toddler whose eyes are rimmed with black liner.

Men selling garam nashta (hot breakfasts in boxes), chai, kulfi, combs and kids selling peanuts get on at every stop to sell their wares, parade up and down each carriage a couple times, and hop off again as the train starts moving.

Three hours into the journey, the scenery outside is stunning, although rubbish lines the sides of the tracks, the legacy of years of passengers chucking their litter out through the window and no refuse collection to clear it up.

The train toilet is a hole through the bottom of the train.

There is, I am glad to report, no cow on my seat. I had a dream about spending the train journey up sitting with a cow; thankfully my fears were unfounded.
Paul got himself a diary. Good stuff, particularly the "day in the life" bit, which sort of means I don't have to write one.

I'm also kind of glad the poem about the river is available for the world to see. It caused us much merriment at the time. Of course, you probably had to be there...

Oh and Paul? Yes, of course I bloody confessed the Odomos incident. What, you think I'm going to let you get me like that again? Pah.
Friday, November 12, 2004

A great photo of Bhavana at the registration desk on the first morning of the INTAF-India conference.

The children of Mr Gupta the project accountant and Mrs Gupta, headmistress of the primary school.

From left to right, then: First, Dipika, AKA "Dipu", prefers wearing boys' clothes. She's 14. Many of us thought that Dipu was a boy when we first met her.

Govinda, the lone boy, is 9, and a bit of a handful. He has some mean dancing moves, and isn't afraid to use them.

Leikhni ("Leiku"), in the glasses, is 18 but claims to be 16. She's at college. Hobbies include sneaking up on her victims from behind...

Finally, we have Bhavana, who looks about 12, claims to be 18, and is actually 20. She's partway through a university degree. Bhavana also helped Pushpa (of whom more later) look after the PVs, and was involved in some admin work at the INTAF conference (again, I'll explain that later) as well.

There is also an older sister, but she got married and moved away a few years ago.

All of them speak the best English of anyone of their age in the region. And better than a lot of the teachers, too.

About to head off to Bilari to see the doc on Day 10 (a story I'm going to have to relate in more detail - it turned out to be a wild ride), Paul and I found ourselves descended upon by the Gupta sisters. There are worse ways to kill a few minutes.

L-R: Leikhni, Bhavana, Dipu, me and Paul.
And speaking of comments...
I received a very nice note yesterday from Estrid and Andrew Heron, parents of my fellow Project Visitor and sometime room-mate, Paul (Estrid: it's at this point that I mention that Paul asked me to send his old mobile to your house, so don't be confused if a small package from Swansea turns up on your doorstep in the next day or so).

Paul Heron is possibly one of the most decent blokes I have ever had the pleasure to share a room with. A fount of useless information ("Pablo wisdom"), widely read, possessed of finely honed critical sensibilities (well, he shares my opinion of Dan Brown, anyway) and generally hard-working, enthusiastic and open-minded, Paul was mostly a pleasure to share a room with. And I'm not just saying this because his mum and dad are reading.

Except... note that I said "mostly".

See, Paul was also party to one of the most unpleasant discoveries of my entire time at the the project.

No, not the fact that a lot of the locals are really prejudiced against low castes and Muslims, nor even the revelation that those friendly, funny kids were trying to squeeze several of us out of whatever they could get.

No, the most unpleasant thing I found out was just how much a tube of Odomos, India's favourite mosquito repellent, resembles a tube of Colgate. I mean, it's 7am. I wasn't conscious. I hadn't had a decent cup of tea for three weeks (and no, chai, the sludgy concoction made by brewing tea, milk, sugar and cinnamon all together in the kettle which they consume by the gallon is frankly not the same) and as a result my state of mind in the morning was even closer to unconscious than usual.

I mean, it was an easy mistake to make - reach into the washbag, pull out the tube, squeeze the white paste onto the brush, insert brush in mouth, start brushing.

Except... Yeah, you get the idea.

According to Paul, who was present in the room and witnessed the whole thing, I stopped dead in my tracks, said, "Oh, no, please God, no..." and started spitting. Paul found this the most hilarious thing he had ever seen; in his words: "comedy gold".

Over the next day or two, he then made a point of making sure that everyone - even the director of the project - knew about it. I ended up telling people myself in order to beat him to it.


So, as a result, while, should Paul Edward Heron rock up in my local hostelry, I would be delighted to buy the first round, if I ever get my hands on his toothpaste, he's for it.

Just a quickie to say - yes, you can leave comments on this blog, even if you're not registered. When the comments box appears, click on the radio button marked "anonymous"; but don't forget to leave your name in the message.
Thursday, November 11, 2004

The main street at a quiet moment. No cows, unfortunately.  Posted by Hello

Moradabad. Posted by Hello

Since I already mentioned Moradabad, I thought I'd start with some shots of the streets. This one was taken from the back of a rickshaw. The driver is the guy in the bottom right hand corner. Posted by Hello
I was asked this morning in my comments (first comment - yay!) if, apart from my frustration with haggling, my trip had elicited any change in me. Good question.

Answer : dunno.

I have to admit that before I went away, I didn't care about India all that much. I originally decided to take the trip because Tracy had for years wanted to return to the place, having been there on a project of her own back in 1999. I was feeling guilty about being a rich Westerner (yeah, yeah, I know. Stupid White Liberal guilt and all that) and was beginning to feel strongly that I should do something
- anything - worthwhile and so I agreed to go looking for projects in India to get involved in. Things took a bit of an interesting turn when Tracy discovered that her boss wasn't going to agree to her having four weeks of leave. Suddenly, I was going on my own.

As it turned out, Tracy did manage to wangle two weeks, but this was still going to mean that of the twenty-five days that I was out there, Tracy was going to be with me for eleven.

So what did that mean for me?

I had never done this before. Hell - and this is an embarrassing confession for a twenty-nine year old professional - I hadn't even gone outside of the British Isles. I made a llot of excuses as to why this was the case, but in the end, the reason was that I was lazy, and hadn't got round to it.

Now I know that I can do this sort of thing. I know that I can shower using a bucket of cold water, eat potato curry twice a day for three weeks, survive in a region where no one speaks your language, no matter how slowly and loudly you speak it, trade in markets, buy Indian clothes, fend off staring Indian children. I know which beggars to give money to and which ones not to (clue - if he's got no fingers and the market trader you're talking to freely gives the guy money, he's probably on the level, and deserves a rupee). And all this in three weeks.

More than that: it's kindled in me a fascination with Indian culture - its history, its contradictions, its languages, its manners; with the politics of film, with Bollywood and the strange fragments of Western society that still persevere there; with people living their lives in a place where no white tourist ever goes.

I have also developed a healthy contempt for the Lonely Planet - sure, it's a peerless guide for hotels and tourist attractions, but it's written by outsiders for outsiders, and all it really does is perpetuate a culture of people who think they're being culturally sensitive, when in fact they're just as crass as the tourists in Ibiza or the Costa Brava.

Most of all, it's kindled in me a desire to go back there again. One day.

Anyway. The reason there was no entry yesterday was because I spent the time I would have spent composing an update scanning in photos. Most have a story behind them, so I'm only going to post one or two at a time.Starting with the next entry.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004
On the take

Travelling through Delhi both ways, it becomes apparent to any Western tourist that the shopsellers of Paharganj, the DVD stalls, the cabbies and the autorickwallahs are all trying to rip you off.

Most Indians earn 50 Rupees or less (about $1 US, or 65p Sterling) each day; this is sort of enough to live on , if just managing to stay above starvation floats your boat. So when rich Western tourists and - more commonly - Israeli backpackers (Delhi is swarming with 'em, honestly. I even saw a hotel in Paharganj that had its own synagogue) turn up on the streets with money that's worth anything up to a hundred times more than the local money, they'll try and get a bit of it.

Witness the whole deal with autorickshaws - strange little boxes pulled by what is essentially a moped, and which is not possessed of a reverse gear (one rickwallah I rode with actually got out at one point and pushed his vehicle backwards with us sitting in it in order to avoid a car in a narrow alley). You want to get from, say Paharganj to Connaught Place, because if you're a tourist, that's where you want to eat., so you stop one of those little green autorickshaws and ask the price (they have a meter, but they never, ever turn them on for tourists), and the guy says seventy rupees. You laugh, and say fifteen. The guy repeats himself once, as do you. You turn to walk away. The guy says, forty. You say twenty. You might be able to get down to twenty-five. And you're still being ripped off for about fifteen to twenty rupees.

To be honest, I found this all a little depressing. As far as I was concerned, living in a provincial British town where a three-mile taxi ride costs maybe five pounds, the difference between paying thirty pence and ninety pence is frankly negligible. But that difference, for a local, is huge. Because in India a small sum of money is a large sum of money. Except it isn't: you can go to the Pizza Hut on Connaught Place and buy a pizza with two side orders, a dessert and drinks for maybe 250 Rupees all in. That's a week's wages. It's also maybe three quid.

Dinner in the Kwality Restaurant in Sansad Marg - a proper, expensive restaurant with obsequious uniformed waiters and everything - cost 1500 Rupees for three people, maybe about eighteen pounds. For a three-course meal with drinks and coffee. And that includes a hefty service charge.

This is dirt cheap by our standards, but still way beyond the means of any but the richest Indians. The inequity between the rich and poor is so powerfully marked.

To be honest, I found myself rubbish at haggling and frankly unable to be arsed with it. It was just a hassle. I'd have rather let 'em rip me off half the time. I mean, it's a big score for them, and sure, they have, by their standards, ripped me off for half a day's wages. But what's that to me?

Pennies, that's what.
Monday, November 08, 2004
I got back on Friday morning, after having travelled for much of a 32-hour period, in which I slept for precisely no minutes. It did indeed mean that I got to see the in-flight movies, namely Aliens vs. Predator (and what an absolute minger that was) and recent Bollywood hit Shart: The Challenge, which was, since it was the first time I've seen an actual Masalla movie, a weird experience.

To summarise the plot would be superfluous. It was tremendously entertaining, and included comedy, romance, drama, kung-fu (yes, that's right - the hero, an ad-man, was also a black belt in kung-fu, for no readily apparent reason) and, of course, song and dance routines.

Bollywood fascinates me. It's tremendously seductive and shallow, even more so than Hollywood. Bollywood stars are everywhere. Even in the tiny, virtually unmapped community of Amarpurkashi, where crushing (not as crushing as some places nearby, but still pretty crushing) poverty is the order of the day for many, you still found posters of Shahrukh Khan on the doors of houses; Lovely Aishwarya Rai on the cover of every college student's exercise book; and the mighty Amitabh Bachchan (since 1969, the star of 156 - one hundred and fifty-six! films) everywhere, and not just on posters for Pepsi and Cadbury's, he's actually painted by hand on the side of village houses advertising medicines.

Many of these people, like Nafisa Ali and Anupam Kher (193 films in twenty years) have even gotten into politics. Mr. Kher, known to British audiences for his role in Bend it like Beckham, was, while I was in India, the centre of a scandal revolving around his dismissal as head of the Indian Board of Film Censors - officially, it was supposed to be that he was too busy making films, but there was some sort of leak, and it turned out that he'd been fired because he was thought to be a "functionary" of the RSS, a scary Hindu extremist group (it was a member of the RSS who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi back in 1948, and they haven't changed much since) who had been supported by the recently defeated and equally scary right-wing ("India for the Hindus!") BJP government. Now that Sonia Gandhi 's (Sonia: widow of Rajiv, daughter in law of Indira, no relation to MK) moderate NCP-Congress Coalition is in power, they're manouevring the scary right-wingers out of their positions of responsibility.

Was Anupam really a member of the RSS? I followed the story with interest, but frankly, with all the denials, counter denials, threats of of legal action (both sides), it was still pretty unclear if it was true or not. Here's what the BBC has to say on the matter.

They may be poor in Amarpurkashi, but still, most people have DVD players, on which they often get all their mates around to watch pirate VCDs of the latest bolly smashes. I thought that this was wild and bizarre... except, when you think about it, if you head about thirty miles up the road to the Rhonndda Valley, which has some of the most genuine poverty in the British Isles, they may be starving... but every house has a satellite dish.

Having about 180 pages of journal, I'm going to continue to update this blog with stories, pictures and stuff for some time. I've also invited Paul "Pablo" Heron, my room mate at the Amarpurkashi project, to add some of his own travel stories to this blog. He may not have the opportunity, but you never know.

Anyway, keep reading.
Monday, October 25, 2004
Monday. Day 14.

Back in Moradabad (about which I had been misled - it has only one million inhabitants, but, hey, what's a couple dozen lakh between friends?) with my temporary sisters Stephanie and Claartje - a necessary deception when you have women with you in non-tourist areas of India - for the purposes of connection and PIZZA, we found ourselves turfed out of the internet cafe by a very apologetic guy when the server went down. So here I am in the Chada Shopping Complex in a much nicer cafe, trying again to write up my thoughts.

Time is short now, so salient points only, I think.

1. My learning of Hindi is just beginning to pay off. It's miraculous being able to gradually hold conversations with people, and - because I've decided to spend a bit of extra time learning the script - even more miraculous seeing these street signs magically change from squiggles into readable writing - like my sight is clearing.

2. I think I've seen the best and the worst of the people of rural India - they're friendly, curious and helpful, but, hampered by an education system which depends on only rote learning and which has no place whatsoever for moral education, the young are ill-mannered, immature and prejudiced. One 20-year-old Hindu student from a high-caste family told me that the Muslims in the village smelled, that they did not wash, that their women were not allowed to wash their burkhas. Obvious, arrant nonsense, but strange coming from an intelligent person's lips. The wife of the project director told me that most of them are like this, no matter how hard they try to educate them otherwise.

3. I actually quite like Moradabad now. Last time, I was nervous and rude, and was rude to people back. Now I've relaxed a bit, and I'm not acting like an arrogant Western tourist, the people are charming. Having put My Two Dutch Sisters on a rick and sent it to the Chadha Complex, I got in one of my own. It's a stunning experience: the cows, the bikes, the motorbikes, the cars, the buses and trucks, the ox carts. Being caught in a logjam in an Indian city is something I never thought I'd experience. So I'm sitting there, the only white man in a sea of brown faces, and a clean-cut youth on a motorbike edges past. He looks back over his shoulder to make sure he hasn't hit the rickshaw, and then does an honest-to-God double take as he sees me. I give him a grin and he smiles back. He'll see his mates later and tell them he saw a white guy.

4. Which is the point, really. Moradabad, Bilari and of course Amarpur Kashi are not on the beaten track. They don't know about Westerners here. I can gurantee that at this moment my "Sisters" and the other five volunteers are - apart from the project director's wife back in APK - the only white people in a thirty-kilometre radius. Moradabad doesn't warrant a mention in the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide, and why should it? It's just a place where people live their lives. And I'm seeing it for real. I'd give thirty Taj Mahals for that.

5. It can be quite useful, actually. In Moradabad bus station, they know where you're going, because the only white people who ever travel through are going to the APK project.

I have a full journal I'm keeping, so you'll get some of that when I get back. For now, this may be my last actual update from India,

See you, Pop Kids.
Sunday, October 17, 2004
Sunday. Day 6.
So many observations, so many things to write. Better bullet point. I'm in an internet cafe in Moradabad today. We have Sundays off, so I'm here on a day trip with my wife and my two "sisters", Stephanie and Claartje, a couple of Dutch year out students. Around here, it's not good for single women to be alone.

1. The 21st century intrudes in the weirdest places. I met a local boy from the village - from a rich family. While I was talking to him, he whipped out his internet mobile, and was like, "MSN"? Didn't expect that.

2. We are staying in a very basic whitewashed room with a stone floor and steel shutters rather than glass in the windows. We have a bucket and jug to shower with, and draw water from a pump directly from the ground. Showers are, unsurprisingly, always cold.

3. The block we're in is shared by about seven other rooms. Apart from the two rooms shared by PVs, the rest is occupied by teachers and lecturers (the project is centred around a college which provides education from kindergarten through to Masters' Degree level). I think the most comforting revelation I received from my trip has been the realisation that these guys are, notwithstanding the language barrier, the fact they're Hindus and Muslims and live in these rooms, wash from a pump and work in a very different world, they're just guys. You know. Blokes. They lark about, listen to the cricket on their shortwave radios and just generally act like guys. Nice guys, too, although they found it hilarious that I was doing the laundry (in our trusty bucket, of course), with Tracy giving instructions. Woman's work, see. I've not heard the end of it.

4. In rural India, standards of personal hygiene are very high (not in Delhi, mind - there they pee and poo anywhere and anywhichway) - they wash for ages, use soap and hair products; everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) here has immaculately groomed hair. It's just as well. The standards of civic hygiene is appalling. Rubbish is just dumped on the street. Flies are everywhere. The frogs and lizards who share our room with us keep them at bay.

5. Mosquitoes don't like the taste of me. They like Tracy much better. I'm pretty OK with this situation, Tracy less so.

6. Indian squat toilets. Actually, I don't think I can bring myself to talk about these right now.

7. Monkeys. Little @#$$!!#s. Vicious, diseased, thieving, loud, NOT CUTE AT ALL and everywhere.

8. Local kids are nice, very friendly, very sharp and very manipulative. Tracy's already done bits of homework for two kids and several of the others have been asked for favours - like "lending" stuff or buying stuff for them. The kid with the mobile tried to scab cigarettes off me. Which was amusing.

9. The staff are class. Although most speak English, their standard of spoken English isn't great - the best English, apart from Mukhat Singh, the director of the project, who's been married to an Australian woman for forty years, is actually spoken by Bahavna, a student who helps look after us and who looks about 14 when she's in fact 20, and by the APK project's general administrator, factotum, do-it-all woman and Hindi teacher, Pushba Singh. No relation, incidentally. About two thirds of everyone here is called Singh. The mighty Pushba is like this Hindu superwoman: highly proficient in Yoga, computer literate, organised, friendly, professional, and still able to cook dinner and clean the house. More about her in a later update, I think.

10. We get the Hindustan Times delivered, about a day late, India's national paper, which is a boradsheet with news coverage of Daily Express quality. In English, obviously. The personals section has a "Grooms wanted" page.

11. Causing traffic problems. One of the conditions of this project is native dress, so went to the nearby town of Bilari to buy cloth and then went to a local tailor to get measured up for Kurtas (boys) and Salwar Kameez (girls). No Sarees - they're for married women, and aren't so practical when you're doing practical stuff. Anyway, outside this tailor, which was next door to a mosque, we attracted dozens of kids who just stood and watched us. Nothing more. Just looked at us. It's a strangely unsettling experience. The buses, cars and rickshaws found their way blocked. Not that this actually stops them.

12. The roads are terrifying: lined with rubbish, they have rickshaws (the ones towed by a bike), buses, trucks, knackered old taxis, ox carts, horses, random cows, loads of bikes and motorbikes. And the occasional brand-new Toyota, usually driven by a Sikh. Don't ask me why. The guy who drives APK Project jeepster drives like a man who is certain of a better reincarnation. If you know what I mean. But then, you have to. Blow that horn!

13. Did I mention that the girls weren't allowed to buy Sarees? Tracy already had a very nice one from her previous visit to India, and wore it a couple days ago, while the Mighty Pushba was taking us around the primary school. I discovered later from a couple of the primary teachers that many of the teachers now refer to Tracy as "the Saree Lady". One even thought that she was Indian for a moment; she was too busy coveting the saree. It's quite a good one, apparently.

14. The train trip from Delhi was hell. But I've been here ages, so I'll sign out and leave that story for another time.
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
Tuesday. Day 1.
Yesterday, because it was spent mostly on an aeroplane (coolest thing about plane: Indian stewardesses in BA sarees), was Day Zero.

OK. In an internet cafe in Delhi. Connaught Place is bizarre: a clash of two worlds, like a little old show-shine guy outside TGI Fridays, beggars next to Nike. Odd.

Hot, sweaty, air smells of petrol, constantly. Hooked up with Paul, another volunteer, which was nice. Tomorrow morning we get up at 4am-uish and travel by train to the Project. Wish me luck
Friday, October 08, 2004
Well, so much for the alternative apocalypse.

I'll be using this space to record my adventures over the next month, while I am in India, visiting Amarpurkashi Rural Polytechnic.

I have no idea if I'm going to have the chance to get on the web more than a couple times, but if I do... here's where I'll be.
Monday, February 24, 2003
it's all still here. i can see the lake from my window. the birds are still there.

except i can see through them.

that can't be right.
Wednesday, July 24, 2002
In the botanical gardens in Singleton park, the flowers have grown so fast and so thickly, it has become difficult to walk around. There are, on the sides of the disappearing paths, benches, which have been left untouchd by the greenery. Every single one carries a plaque in memory of someone.
Saturday, July 20, 2002
I was, to tell the truth, a little disappointed when the world went and ended.

I was expecting a couple of angels, at least.

Friday, July 19, 2002
Although the bin men and council refuse workers are nowhere to be seen, there is no rubbish on the streets.
Monday, July 15, 2002
Nobody seems to understand. They simply ignore that the world has gone away, pretend that it hasn't. You explain it, they nod, blank-eyed, failing to actually take in what you're saying. Colour me frustrated.
Saturday, July 13, 2002
Buildings sometimes vanish, replaced for a time by those which were there before they were built. For example. The day before yesterday, I saw that the nurses' college where many of my friends used to be had come back; yesterday, the housing estate which was built there after it was knocked down was back again. No one else seems to notice.
now you've seen me in two places/ now my secret's yours to see/ must you put aside your graces? / won't you spend some time with me?

07/01/2002 - 08/01/2002 / 02/01/2003 - 03/01/2003 / 10/01/2004 - 11/01/2004 / 11/01/2004 - 12/01/2004 / 12/01/2004 - 01/01/2005 / 07/01/2005 - 08/01/2005 /

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