Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas at Castle Bijaipur

Continuing with the tourism theme, I made my way to Rajasthan for Christmas. As I chugged my way from Delhi to Chittaurgarh on the train, I was joined by two Canadians who had never been to India before and I felt like an old-hand as I explained that it was quite normal for a family of 5 to occupy the one spare bed in our curtained pod and that the army of cockroaches crawling up the wall really wouldn’t kill them. Castle Bijaipur – owned and inhabited by the local maharajah - was everything you imagine a Raj palace in Rajasthan would be. Over 800 miles from Orissa, it felt like another country. The Castle was set in a very fertile valley parts of which reminded me of East Yorkshire (or was I just homesick?), the vegetation was different in both type and colour, the men wore turbans which you don’t see in Orissa and whilst the women wore saris they were tied in a completely different way to those of their Eastern cousins. Most of the people who were part of our group had come from the UK to avoid Christmas but fortunately for me there were some injections of the festive season. On Christmas Eve we were treated to a display of fireworks around a tree lit with fairy lights and decorated with blobs of cotton wool to represent snow and when I retired to bed I was thrilled to see that Santa had found his way to India and left me a Christmas stocking. During the four days I stayed at the castle, I cycled the surrounding hills, went riding on Marwari horses - indigenous thoroughbreds who sport rather strange ears that are turned inside out and meet in middle - and sat by the pool sipping the G&Ts I’d been dreaming about. We also visited an opium growing area. Supposedly strictly controlled by the government, there seemed to be enough floating around for us to be offered an opium-cocktail made from water filtered through the crushed seeds– which, as I’m sure you’re dying to know, tastes metallic, doesn’t give you a high (or at least not in the quantity we consumed) but does make your lips a bit tingly. I probably wouldn’t rush back for seconds but, as they say, you should try everything, except incest and Morris dancing, at least once. I finished my stay sitting round a camp fire in the jungle sipping whisky and singing Christmas carols. All in all a fabulous way to spend Christmas in India – a great mixture of the exotic and the traditional. Click here to see where Castle Bijaipur is. Click here for more pictures.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jharkhand jolly

Ranchi, as expected, is nothing to write home about but Jharkhand, of which it is the capital, was really beautiful. The scenery is quite different from where I am living - wide open spaces, lakes, pretty waterfalls etc. You also saw people riding on the tops of the buses which you don’t get down our way – probably because the roads are so bumpy they’d bounce off. The VSO team in Ranchi treated us to a two-day tour of the area prior to the conference and I started to feel like a tourist again which I really enjoyed. We climbed down to a spectacular waterfall and, as I huffed and puffed my way back up, I made a mental note to try to do a little more exercise. The night was spent in a convent and, on arrival, we watched some carol singers set off on their rounds. Everyone was wearing woolly hats and scarves but there the similarity ended – tuneful Indian ditties were sung but nothing that remotely resembled Away in a Manger. We had supper round a camp-fire - the feathers from our recently-slaughtered meat course wafting round our heads - and then we joined in some tribal dancing. It was quite easy to follow but it went on for hours. As I whirled my way round in a never-ending circle, each arm firmly grasped by my neighbours, I realised that ducking out wasn’t going to be an option but also that I didn’t need to go jogging to keep myself fit, I just needed to be a tourist a little more often – much more fun. The next day we visited a rehabilitation centre for trafficked children who put on a show for us. It was all rather sweet and uplifting until you remembered why they were there in the first place and that the toddlers amongst them were the result of systematic rape by their mothers’ former “employers”. We ended the tour with drinks on the roof-top of our hotel in Ranchi after which I re-acquainted myself with the delights of a shower that delivers hot water. Whilst, I wouldn’t put Jharkhand amongst my top-10 places to visit in India, in its own unassuming way it was rather charming. Click here to see where Ranchi is. Click here to see more pictures

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas drinks

Orissa isn't a dry state but drinking is very much frowned upon in Bhawanipatna. I've never hidden the fact that in the UK I drink alcohol saying that most people do - including women. I have also said that part of the pleasure is meeting with friends and drinking with them – it's not the same drinking on your own – and I wasn't really interested in locating the local bottle shop. People here are very concerned that I miss my lifestyle in England and at times I dreaded someone buying some for me and then watching me consume it whilst they sipped their water - I couldn't think of anything worse. I have also been asked a lot of questions, recently, about what Christmas is like in England and in amongst describing a Christmas tree, introducing them to the concept of Santa Claus and trying to explain exactly what a mince pie is, I have mentioned that there a lot of parties which involve standing around, eating peanuts and drinking. So I really shouldn't have been quite so surprised when I opened my door this evening to find two very sheepish-looking Indian friends asking if they could come in. As the first withdrew a bottle of whisky from under his jumper, the other explained that, as I was leaving for my holidays on Monday, they thought we should have a Christmas party before I left. The door was bolted, the shutters locked and, while I rustled up a bowl of Bombay mix, the bottle was ceremoniously opened and we sat down round my formica table. They thought they should stand but I explained that for a small party it was perfectly acceptable to sit. A very small shot was then poured into each glass which was filled to the top with water and we toasted Christmas, England and whisky. They were not impressed with my taste in music – but then not many people are - so I switched it off and we listened to the Indian music blaring out from the garden next door. Once I'd recovered from the shock, the whisky kicked in and I started to relax and feel very touched by their gesture. The only problem now is how to get rid of the evidence. I think I'm going to have to pack it in my suitcase and take it to Ranchi where a stray whisky bottle will, hopefully, cause less of a stir.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cricket in Cuttack

I've never been into to cricket but when Ryan said he had some tickets to watch England play India in Cuttack I jumped at the chance. The first challenge was to sort out transport. The easiest way to get to Cuttack is by bus and, whilst obtaining a ticket for the outward journey was straightforward, getting a return ticket turned out to be a challenge. The people in Bhawanipatna refuse to liaise with their colleagues in Cuttack because "they not good peoples" so I had to rope in my erstwhile friend, Baijayant, who spoke to a friend, who knew someone, who had a cousin, who would arrange a place for me on a bus coming back – no ticket but I was assured it would be OK - so off I set. The overnight journey takes 12 hours but some of the buses have a row of beds above the seats so you get to lie down and at least try to sleep. The only problem was the rather narrow beds didn't have any form of barrier to stop you falling off so I spent the night clinging to the bars on the windows petrified I'd be jettisoned 5 feet to the floor by one of the numerous jolts and bumps. I managed to arrive unscathed however and by 7am I was sitting in a hotel having breakfast with Ryan and his wife Claire. After several cups of rather disgusting coffee – I really must remember to stick to tea – and some cornflakes served with hot milk – it's how they like them in India – we made our way to the match. It was easy to find an auto-rickshaw – one look at our white faces and the driver set off to the Stadium without needing to ask where we wanted to go. On arrival we stood, for a couple of hours, in one of the most orderly queues I have seen anywhere in the world before we finally made it to our seats. We'd decided to go for the full experience so had bought the cheapest seats on offer – about £4 each – which turned out to be a concrete step. It was great fun sitting amongst the entirely Indian crowd. There were about 22,000 people and we appeared to be the only English people our side of the stadium although we did spot a lone Union Jack on the other side. The "Barmy Army" was noticeable by its absence. Everyone was fascinated by us being there and, in a truly sportsman like way, the whole crowd clapped when our batsmen made a good hit – not very many I'm afraid – and stood and cheered when Petersen scored the first century by an English player in India for over 6 years – Millwall v Tottenham it certainly wasn't. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see India bat as I had to make my way back. Somehow, I managed to find the right bus and, although nobody actually asked who I was, they all seemed to know – ticket or no ticket – that one of the seats on the packed bus was reserved for "madam" and I made it back to Bhawanipatna this morning with just enough time to have a shower before I went to work. Click here for more pictures.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In Ushamaska with the UN

Set deep inside the Karlapat Forest Reserve, Ushamaska is one of the tribal villages where Antodaya has been encouraging women to form self-help groups. Membership is Rs10 (~12 ½ p) a month and this money is put in a communal bank account together with income derived from selling brooms etc and donations from government bodies. It is then used to buy food and other essentials when times are hard. These initiatives are designed to cut out the money-lenders and make people more responsible for their finances and in development lingo it's called micro-finance - micro it certainly was, few communal accounts had more than £30. Karen had been sent from the UN to look into how these types of accounts were run as part of an investigation into best practice amongst uneducated communities - in Ushamaska very few of the women could count let alone read the numbers in their pass-books. I had been invited to accompany her because I am the only female-Westerner in town and, by default, we must have a lot in common! Fortunately, Karen turned out to be really nice woman from Germany, although you couldn't tell from her perfect American accent, and in between her work we discovered we did, in fact, have a lot to talk about. We set off at 6am for the bumpy four-hour journey on what were mainly dirt roads and travelled through the forest where, apparently, wild elephants and the odd tiger roam. Needless to say I didn't see either but then I never have had much luck when it comes to spotting wildlife. Ushamaska was much smaller than I had imagined but it was in an idyllic location set half way up a mountain and surrounded by forest. On arrival we were met by the women from Ushamaska and also those from "nearby" villages – some of whom had walked 10km to attend the meeting. There were some feisty individuals amongst the crowd - the work that has been carried out to make them aware of their rights and give them a "voice" certainly seems to be working! They also had a wicked sense of humour and laughed out loud at my attempts to speak Oriya and gave me an impromptu pronunciation lesson – their continued giggling indicating that I still haven't quite got it. I'd give the bumpy ride a miss if I could but I'd love to go back and it was great to meet the people I'm working for face to face. Click here to see more photos.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Not the Koraput Fair

Women are often treated dismissively in India but I had not been ... until yesterday that is. A colleague of Dillip's invited me to accompany him to the Koraput Tribal Fair after I mentioned I was interested in textiles. The day started really well. Sarnath showered me with an eclectic array of gifts – a fresh flower, a Hindu rosary, a baseball cap and a book on tribal development. We set off with a random selection of his family, who were hitching a lift part of the way, and our first stop was for a small snack – 7 samosas, heaps of rice, dhal and a slab of cheesecake. When we dropped off the family, I was invited in for tea but, before I had chance to reply, Sarnath declined the invitation on my behalf. My hackles rose slightly but I let it go. Our next stop was an agricultural research centre where he "had a bit of business to do but we would get to Koraput at 3 o'clock". I was foisted on some poor, unsuspecting researchers who were told to take me on a tour of the place while he conducted his business. It was a pleasant way to pass the time even though I was invited to inspect each and every one of the 89 types of rice grown in Orissa - it's amazing how many things you find to say about rice! At 6pm, with no sign of Sarnath, I started to get a bit annoyed - the researchers were going home and I knew the return journey would take 5 hours. He pitched up finally and, on arriving at Koraput, we went to the Jaganath temple. It was rather beautiful but I wasn't that interested because I could see my time for browsing tribal textiles slipping away. As we left the temple, I was informed that, if I still insisted on going, I could spend no more than 10 minutes at the fair. Insisted on going ... it was the only reason I had come. I was marched there at break-neck speed and to hurry me up, he turned and clicked his fingers at me in an attempt to bring me to heel – at this point, I lost patience. Looking him straight in the eye, I did an 180 degree turn and made my way to the first interesting looking stall. I managed to buy something I actually liked but only because the stall-holder clocked who was holding the purse strings and chose to talk to me about what I wanted and ignore the instructions issued by my minder. I'm not entirely sure what made me so angry. His business meetings were certainly more important than my shopping but there seemed to be no requirement to explain why the plans had changed so drastically let alone apologise. The finger clicking episode certainly didn't help. Apparently there's a similar fair in Bhawanipatna in January – I'll pick who I go with carefully.

Friday, November 14, 2008

In between sipping tea

Only recently have I accumulated enough hours of electricity to sort out what I'm supposed to be doing on the work front and for whom. Antodaya supports people of the kutia-Khond tribe based in the Dangarla Mountains. Living in extremely isolated villages – many only accessible on foot - their over-riding problem is food security. Despite plentiful rain and reasonable soil quality, most people only manage to feed themselves for 6 months of the year. Reasons include exploitation (to buy food during the lean periods, land is mortgaged to moneylenders who then take its entire crop as repayment); culture (festivals and practices revolve around a single harvest although the land could support two); and deforestation. In addition, only 10% of children attend the free schools – they are needed to work in the fields; there is only one small hospital in the area and not enough local health workers to go round – death from dysentery and malaria is common; and, unaware of their rights, they make rich pickings for the moneylenders and local administrators. Antodaya's successes in addressing these problems include a canal-construction project providing about 20 villages with clean drinking water and for irrigation; introducing alternative crops to make people less reliant on the forests for additional food; and education about their rights has made them less dependent on the moneylenders - a few years ago, Dillip spent 6 months in hospital following an attack by a group of moneylenders unhappy with his activities.
My main role seems to be writing funding proposals. This involves taking ideas for new projects and packaging them in a way that will convince funders of the merits of the proposed venture. So far, I've applied for funding from the Bill Gates Foundation (malaria prevention), the Renewable Energy Consortium (electricity generators powered by cow-dung) and the Orissa Tribal Livelihoods Programme (creating orchards to provide a year-round income) – still waiting to hear back on all of them though. Because India's passion for putting everything in triplicate made a seamless transition into the electronic age at Antodaya, finding the relevant information on the office computer can be a long tortuous process. In an attempt to improve this, I'm also creating a database which involves teaching myself how to programme Microsoft Access as well as collating and ordering the information. I really like the kind of stuff Antodaya does because it produces tangible results, I just hope the work I do, in between sipping tea, will introduce them to more rigorous processes which will lead to increased funding for the numerous ideas they have for improving the lot of the Dangarla kutia-Khonds.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Dancing in Delhi

In a stark contrast to my life in rural Orissa, last week I went to Delhi and met and mingled with people reaping the benefits of India's economic explosion that has simply by-passed those living in places like Bhawanipatna. I'd come to Delhi to do some work for VSO and, lacking office space, Freya and I decamped to a café in the trendy Khan Market where we could sip cappuccinos and eat Danish pastries whilst surfing the net on our computers using the in-house Wi-Fi connection. Around us sat the young and, more importantly, rich Indians who come to these Western-style establishments to meet friends or work and who wear the latest Western fashions to compliment their lifestyles – not a sari or salwar kameez in sight. Once the work was finished we cruised the shops. Khan Market caters for Western tastes but, fortunately, in amongst the fashion emporiums, up-market delis and English bookshops, you can also find really nice Indian clothes – I bought several new salwar kameez – and Eastern style home décor shops – I eyed up some wine glasses until I remembered you can't get wine where I live. We then went on to a beauty salon and, whilst Freya had a manicure and head massage, I went for a pedicure – I know, I never went for that kind of thing in the UK but when in Rome ... Shopped out, we went on to John's flat for drinks and nibbles. John is another VSO volunteer who is a farmer from Yorkshire and is as thrilled by living in a metropolis as I am by living in the country. We were joined by several of his friends some of whom were local advocates and doctors. Whilst not the richest people in Delhi, most of them live in fully serviced apartments and had cars and iPhones etc. After drinks we proceeded to a night-club ... or two. To be honest, I've never been that fond of clubbing but I had a grand time. In the first club they played 80s music – U2, Police, Wham - and we danced and sang until 11.30pm when it shut. Those of us with staying-power then went onto another night-club in a very smart 5-star hotel. Frequented by business men accompanied by what looked suspiciously like call-girls, it was like any other hotel nightclub except it only played Indian music. On the dancing front, John and I agreed that we'd throw ourselves into it as long as we kept our respective antics strictly between ourselves. Suffice to say we both now know the actions to all the latest Punjabi-disco hits - Village People eat your hearts out. I don't think I'd like to live in Delhi, not least because I couldn't afford it, but I had a great time experiencing a different Indian life-style.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Learning to make roti

As well as rice, roti is another staple in Indian cuisine. It's a bit like naan bread but much thinner and not as large. You get served 3 or 4 pieces with your meal instead of, or sometimes in addition to, your rice. Dillip asked if I would like his wife to teach me how to make them as I'd commented on how good hers were and also because you can't buy them in the shops – they're always made at home. So last night, after work, I popped upstairs to his house and had my first Indian cookery lesson. The basic recipe is flour mixed with salt and water to make a dryish dough – a bit like pastry but there's no butter in it. You then knead the dough as you would any other bread – in India this is done in the bowl rather than on the counter because it is considered unsavoury to touch food with your left hand and kneading with one hand is easier in a bowl. All that was quite easy – I think it will take a couple of times to get the consistency exactly right but not difficult in theory. You then divide the dough into fish-cake sized patties – again using one hand but in the privacy of my own home I imagine I'll probably use both – and you then roll the patties into rounds and this is where a lot of practice will be required. On a round roti-sized wooden board, the aim is create perfect circles out of the patties with a rolling pin – not only do they have to be perfect circles but they have to be of an even thickness – there's no cutting off the bits round the edges as you would with pastry. Somehow, you also have to majically turn the dough in the process of rolling it rather than manually shifting it round. There was much mirth at my square or otherwise irregularly shaped rotis and my need to manually turn the dough in between rolling. Having made your perfect circles – or not – you then dry fry them on the hob – squashing down any air bubbles that might appear. You use a special cast-iron pan for this – the name of which escapes me – but it's a bit like a frying pan without the sides. When it is cooked it looks a bit like a thick pancake and you then transfer it to a round griddle which you hold over the heat. At this point you find out whether your rolling skills are up to par – if the roti is round and even, the middle of it will separate and top half will fill with air for about 30 seconds; you then toss your roti – pancake style – and the other side rises and your creation ends up nice and light. However, if you haven't got it right it won't rise at all – it's too thick; will only produce a few disjointed bubbles – you haven't rolled it evenly enough; or split at one side – it's not round enough. Most Indian housewives can make dozens of perfect rotis in about 20 minutes – it took me about half an hour to make 5 none of which came anywhere near perfection. So I'm off down to the market tomorrow to buy the requisite pan, griddle and roti board as I think I'll need fair amount of practice before I can offer my creations to any of my neighbours. They will off course need curry to go with them but that's another lesson for another day.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Two months in

Although it doesn't feel like it, I've now been in Bhawanipatna for eight weeks. I still regularly ride side-saddle on the back of motorbikes but am now far less scared and this evening I barely flinched as the bike, driven by the 14-year old Drubo, squeezed between an on-coming tractor and the open drain with only millimetres to spare. It is also interesting to note that what I saw as exiting and different when I first arrived here is now almost every-day. On my 15-minute walk to work (along roads that have seen tarmac at some point but have now reverted to dirt tracks), I pass by people washing themselves, their clothes and their crockery at the local water pump without a second glance; and I amble un-seeing through traffic jams that comprise seven bullock-carts meeting a throng of children going to school – three or four to a bike. It's still quite beautiful – romantic even – but at the same time feels quite normal.
The work front has picked up a bit although there are still hours, sometimes whole days, of inactivity due to the power cuts. I have spent my time trying to learn a bit more Oriyan vocabulary and can now understand about 1 in 100 words spoken by the average 3-year old which is a start at least. I can also count to 100 - no mean feat in Oriya. Unlike European languages, where once you get to 20 you're kind of on the home straight, each number, if not unique, certainly doesn't' follow a consistent pattern so you have to learn each and every one. However, it comes in useful in the market when I can now look horrified when the vendor tries to charge me 26 rupees (chhabisi) for a kilo of tomatoes when I know they should only cost 16 (sohola) rather than blindly handing over some cash and then counting the change to see how much I've been charged.
Additions to my flat include a large wall painting/poster – my landlord had bought so many for his house he got one free and said I could choose a picture for my room. It's about seven feet wide and three feet high and features a group of women collecting water – the least chocolate-boxy one in the catalogue which I've grown to rather like. I've also bought a blender and am becoming and expert at making lassi (a yoghurt based drink) and concocting fruit-juice combinations – there's a glut of custard apples at the moment which go rather nicely with bananas. I'm still being fed by my neighbours - sometimes I eat in their homes (a small teaspoon is now provided probably to minimise the mess I create if left to eat with my hand alone) or sometimes a tiffin box is delivered to my door. I prefer the tiffin box - not because I'm unsociable but because the portions you get given at someone's house are so enormous my stomach seizes up at the thought of all that food going into it. At least when the food is delivered to me at home, I can eat it over two or three days and don't run the risk of offending my hosts because, having struggled through the first portion, I refuse seconds.
So, "Yes", I'm still really enjoying myself and have no desire to return to recession-hit Britain at the moment even for the opportunity to use a sit-down loo – probably the Western "luxury" I miss the most.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Christmas has come early

Well not exactly but it feels like it. The streets are festooned with avenues of lights (some of which look remarkably like Santa on his sleigh) and the town is emptying out as people take their families away on holiday. The reason for all this activity is that it's Dushera – one of India's main festivals that celebrates the three-eyed, ten-armed goddess of power who is known as Durga in Orissa. Several temporary temples have been erected (which are as large as the permanent ones) and for the past three days there have been queues of people – one for men and one women – lining up for the opportunity to pray in front of the fantastically decorated statues of the goddess. The statues are made of clay and are intricately painted and decorated with jewels – real ones. At the end of the festivities the jewels will be returned to the bank vaults and the statues floated in the local river.
At home and in the office, because Durga is the goddess of power, everything that relates to or uses power is blessed. There was a lovely little puja (service) at our office where all the motorcycles were lined up in a row and, as prayers were said, they were daubed in red paint, had incense waved in front of them and flowers and small pieces of coconut scattered over them. Everyone then came inside where the same service was carried out for the benefit of the computer and the photocopier. Not quite so nice is the fact that they still sacrifice animals in Bhawanipatna – a practice the authorities are trying to stamp out. Not being squeamish, I thought I might go and have a look but having seen a movie of the ritual on someone's mobile phone, I'm glad I didn't pursue the idea. Naively I had thought they would slit the goat's throat and effect a clean death but no, they went for an Anne Boleyn-style execution swinging the axe into the petrified animal several times before it's head was eventually severed. I only saw the one goat sacrificed but it was clear that others were also meeting their untimely deaths up and down the street. On a less gory note, Dushera is also a time when women traditionally go home to visit their mothers so whilst Baiyajant's wife, Gita, has gone to see hers, his two sisters and their respective children are visiting him and theirs. On the down-side the women have to fast for a day to ensure their fathers' and brothers' well-being; on the up-side they expect their brothers to buy them at least one, if not two or three, new saris.
I'm glad I stayed in Bhawanipatna for the festival rather than going to the larger towns where I gather the lights and entertainment are more spectacular. I got see and be part of the more intimate side of Dushera rather than just being a spectator and I'll know for next year not to venture down the street where the animals are sacrificed.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The oldest city in the world

Varanasi is claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world and it is also the holiest place in Hindu culture. The sacred River Ganges runs through the town and Hindus believe that if you die there you will break the cycle of re-incarnation and get a first class ticket to heaven. You also get brownie points if you are cremated in Varanasi and/or your ashes or bits of your skeleton (retrieved from the funeral pyre) are thrown into the Ganges. As I approached the city, some of my fellow passengers were busy chucking the bones and ashes of their relatives out of the train door as it crossed over the river - presumably they didn't have time to get off. Life in Varanasi revolves around the Ganges and there are numerous ghats – steep steps leading down to and into the water. As well as the many cremations – on the “burning ghats” – people take ritual baths, float candles in the river, do their washing, pray, promenade, do yoga or just sit. It was swarming with sadhus and swamis and buzzing with colour and activity even at 5am when we went on a boat trip to see the sun rise – yes, I got up that early! Strangely, it reminded me of the Grand Canal in Venice with a large spoonful of Indian spice thrown in.

I'd gone to Varanasi for a conference (which made a pleasant change from, say, Birmingham) but you also got to meet all the other VSO volunteers in India and swap stories in the hotel bar ... over a beer - I hadn’t had a drink for nearly four weeks. The next jolly is in Ranchi so roll on December.
Varanasi map : Culture and history : More pictures.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Getting connected

As the internet connection I’d bought in Delhi didn’t work in Bhawanipatna, I decided to swap it for one provided by BSNL - the national telecoms provider. First stop was the BSNL exchange where they have to confirm it will work on your computer. Next, we trucked down to the shop to purchase the required gizmo. It wasn’t a shop exactly but a collection of offices and, a bit like playing a computer game, you had to clear various levels before you’re allowed to make your purchase. You successfully complete Level 1 only to find yourself back there because you’ve made a mistake at Level 2. It took numerous attempts to successfully complete Levels 1 and 2 - I needed to fill out a form but they didn't have any in stock so I should try another time; the photo didn't look like me - could I come back with a better one; the man at Level 2 isn’t in today - come back tomorrow; and so it went on. Then, having finally made it to Level 3, I was told that, because I was a foreigner, I should have applied in my employer's name and not my own.
By now I was the highest scoring player at Levels 1-3 so, armed with a fresh set of forms, getting to Level 4 was a breeze. Here all the paperwork was laboriously copied out by hand and then two further pages of carefully hand-written text were created and everything was placed in a beige folder. Assuming we were done, I got up to leave. Not a bit of it - I was told to sit back down while all the pages were meticulously written out again and placed in a red folder and then there was the copy for the grey folder and then the yellow. To keep myself sane during the 2½ hour process, I recited The Jumblies to myself. Somehow, the thought of creatures with green heads and blue hands sailing across oceans in a sieve seemed infinitely less surreal than what was going on in front of me. Finally, I accompanied the orange folder to Level 5 where exactly the same information was entered onto the “shop’s” only computer. It very quickly became clear that the computer wasn't working but I sat there for further 1½ hours until everybody else had come to the same conclusion. The Jumblies set sail again several times.
The next day - 17 days after I'd first started - I was finally allowed to buy the required gizmo. However, as I sit here in my flat posting my blogs and listening to latest BBC Radio 4 podcast, I think, in the end, it was probably all worth it. As they say, "All things come to those who wait" … eventually.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Happy Birthday Lord Krishna

Krishna is a re-incarnation of the protector god, Vishnu, and today is his birthday. On the way back from work this evening I bumped into my neighbour, Gita, who invited me to join her for the celebrations. First we went to our local temple which is dedicated to the monkey god, Hanuman. It's a modest affair with just enough room for the priest to get in alongside the statue of Hanuman. We took off our shoes and joined the small congregation standing in the street outside. Everyone was dressed up in their best saris and, amongst the gold and silk, I felt quite conspicuous by my drabness. There seemed to be an order of service – bells were rung and the priest, dressed in a faded orange sarong, waved a small, round candelabra in front of Hanuman who was swathed in garlands of flowers for the occasion. The candelabra was then passed amongst us and you waved your hand through the flames and then over your head in what I assume was a blessing. We were then given slices of banana and cubes of coconut and, having eaten them, it was all over and we proceeded down the road to the Krishna temple. Here you passed your offering – a basket or plastic bag of coconuts, bananas and other fruit – through a hatch in the wall where it was blessed by the priests and handed back. To be honest it was a bit of a scrum and my experience of fighting my way onto a Northern Line tube at rush-hour certainly came in handy. After that we hung around on a street corner chatting with Gita's friends and trying to stop the kids from throwing stones at the cows who by now had bedded down in the street for the night. It was a great evening which has certainly made me feel, if not an integral part of the local community, at least accepted by them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My first week at work

To be honest I've spent a lot of time kitting out my flat and discovering what you can get here (coffee and cornflakes) and what you can't (dishcloths and deodorant). Everyone seems keen to accompany me on my shopping expeditions (more knuckle-whitening rides sitting side-saddle on the back of a motorbike) but with their help I seem to have found most of what I need.
Life at work is ... well ... slower than I'm used to. I get to work about 10am and switch on the computer - only to switch it off again shortly afterwards as the lights start to flicker and the fans grind to a halt. With nothing else to do, I sit and chat to the numerous people who just seem to drop by or I listen to their conversations – trying and failing to understand what they are saying. The electricity might then come back on - or there again it might not - so I fill my mornings chatting (or sometimes just sitting) and only occasionally am I interrupted by a bit of work. Lunch comprises an enormous quantity of rice and two or three portions of curry - fish, dhal, vegetables etc - served on a metal dish. Drubo, a14-year old boy who helps out, is an excellent cook so, by the time it arrives at 2 o'clock, I'm salivating at the thought of his next creation. The afternoon is much the same as the morning and about 6pm I stroll home wondering if I'll get an invitation to supper from either Surendra or Baiyajant tonight or whether I'll have to be really adventurous and cook for myself. Don't get me wrong, I like the slower pace of life but I think I'm going to have to think of something constructive to do when there's no electricity. Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Home sweet home

I'm now installed in my flat and I think I've fallen on my feet as far as accommodation is concerned. I have a large bedsit, a kitchen you can fit a table in and a roof terrace that is bigger than my garden in London. It's all been freshly painted and it comes with a maid-servant who sweeps the floors and does my washing. I also get a TV with cable. The flat is on the first floor which means fewer cockroaches and mosquitoes who, apparently, prefer living close to the drains at street level. In addition, there's a private entrance from our courtyard into the local shop so I barely have to get dressed to get my morning milk and fags. The only downside is it only has a squat loo but I can live with that - I'd perfected the art of peeing standing up long before I came here.

Surendra, my landlord, speaks good English and is very concerned that I have everything I need and Baiyajant, who works for the same outfit as me, lives over the road. Both families have invited me their house for supper on more than one occasion and I'm slowly getting used to sitting on the floor and eating my food with my right hand. I have, however, bought knives and forks for my flat so I can keep my table manners in tip-top condition for mother. Click here for more pictures. Click here to see where I live on a satellite map of Bhawanipatna.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Registering with the police

This morning Torun, an artist friend of Dillip's, came by the office to help me register with the police. He is related to someone high up in the district police force which always helps to smooth the process. We went to the police station only to find that the District Commissioner wasn't there so we popped round to his house - a nice pad with more police wandering round it than in the station itself. I was taken to a small back office where two official-looking men told me they had no idea what to do, they only knew how to arrest people. Whilst I sat there smiling inanely at everyone who came in to gawp at "the foreigner", numerous phone calls were made interspersed with animated discussions – all in Oriya of course so I had no idea what was going on. A couple of hours and several cups of tea later, I was presented with a form to sign and informed I was officially registered. Heaven knows if I actually am but only time will tell.

I was then granted an audience with the District Commissioner himself who sat behind an enormous desk (devoid anything that looked like work) in front of which were five rows of rather elegant gilded dining chairs upholstered in red velvet. I seated myself centre front. Bibek was a formidable man with an immaculate handle-bar moustache but seemed quite human underneath all the pomp. After the usual pleasantries – "Where do you come from?", "Do you eat rice?", "Where is your husband?", he informed me that his men would keep me safe and proceeded to invite me to supper when my Oriya had improved. I'm not sure if this will prove to be an incentive but it's probably a good idea to keep on the right side of those in power.

Monday, August 11, 2008

I’ve arrived

It took 30 hours by train but the journey wasn't actually as bad as I'd first imagined. First you read, then you eat, then you sleep and then you start reading again. I travelled down with 2 other VSO volunteers for all but the last hour or so and we managed to sneak some G&Ts on board which jollied up the evening somewhat.

Dillip, my boss, is a really nice, switched-on guy and he invited me to his house last night for supper. I was introduced to his wife and and then to his children who proceeded to bend down and touch my feet which I found a tad disconcerting but hopefully they only do it the first time they meet you. Although Dillip speaks very good English, the rest of the family struggled to understand me so I think I'll have to perfect my Oriya pretty fast. The only problem is they speak a different type of Oriya from one we learnt in Delhi. From what I can gather it's a bit like learning BBC English and then finding yourself in the back streets of Glasgow. At the end of the evening I was offered a lift back to the hotel and found myself riding side-saddle on the back of a motorbike in true Indian style. It was my first ever time on a motorbike and, whilst it adds to the excitement (or terror), riding side-saddle isn't actually as difficult as it looks. Dillip might not agree however – I was holding on to him so tightly he was gasping for breath when we arrived.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The destitute of Delhi

You pass by people sleeping on the street without a second glance and studiously ignore the pleading eyes of children begging for money – after all it's part of being in a developing country – but, having been exposed to their worlds, I now feel quite embarrassed at my indifference.
On Wednesday night we visited a hostel for the homeless. Situated close to the main railway station, it has five large rooms - each with space for 100 men to sleep on the floor - and a small room at the end of the corridor for children – Oliver Twist sprung to mind. Homelessness in Delhi means just that – a bit of tarpaulin strung over a couple of poles constitutes a home here – these men had nothing. Despite the fact most of the 150,000 homeless do work rather than beg, the police regard them as thieves and vagabonds and frequently beat them up so the hostels sanctuary as well as shelter. Most are migrant workers forced from their villages through poverty and exploitation who, without the necessary paperwork, struggle to find jobs that will pay anything like the minimum wage - £1.25 a day. The night we visited, the hostel was full not least because they also provide a TV and there was a big cricket match on. Like most Indians, the men are besotted by the game – a small pleasure in their otherwise harsh world.
Last night we were invited to watch a documentary on street kids which had been made by the children themselves. On arrival we were greeted by some of the stars of the film who had come to tell us their personal stories. It was a humbling experience to say the least. When you know their names, have listened to the challenges of their daily life and, in particular, heard their aspirations – a meal a day, an education, a life without fear – you respond differently to the next little outstretched arm. A sweet or a banana has made me feel less hard-hearted and – no – you don't then find yourself besieged by a million other outstretched arms.
I hope my new found compassion doesn't leave me.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Culture and cafés

Habitat Centre When I travel I studiously avoid evenings dedicated to local dance and music. I have, however, become rather fond of visiting our local cultural hotspot, the Habitat Centre. Initially attracted by the air conditioning and the upholstered seats, I have been to – and found myself enjoying – a Bangladeshi music recital and a display of Orissan dancing. The Bangladeshi music consisted of female singer accompanied by various instruments – bongo-type drums, small bells tinkled from the outside, something that looked like a filing cabinet but sounded like an accordion and an electric keyboard. The music was rather tragic/plaintive but had tunes you found yourself humming afterwards. The Orissan dancing, on the other hand, was like watching a primary school nativity play. I'm sure the children, wriggling in their uncomfortable costumes, were in time at some point it was just difficult to tell which ones and when. The other great thing about the Habitat Centre is you don't have to stay for the whole duration. People come and go all the time so, when you think you've had your cultural dollop, you can make a swift exit and, if the mood takes you, wander across the courtyard for a different sort of "culture" – the American Diner. The main attraction of this little sanctuary is that it serves beer – not many places in our part of Delhi do – and you can also smoke inside. It makes a pleasant change every now and then and takes the edge off the cultural acclimatisation.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Taj Mahal

There are a few iconic sights that just have to be seen in real life to be fully appreciated and the Taj Mahal is certainly one of these for me. No matter how many pictures you’ve looked at, when you come through the arch and see it … well … just floating serenely before you – it takes your breath away. Somehow the crowds just don’t matter and, fortunately, there were far fewer than I’d been led to imagine. As you get closer, you can see the intricate carving and other detail and marvel at the workmanship but it’s that first long-distance glimpse of it that will stay with me. We did the usual touristy things – took a picture of its reflection in the water and posed, plaintively, a la Princess Diana. The inside was a bit of a disappointment - it was very badly lit and smelt of urine - but you only have to go outside and take another look to be re-invigorated.

We had a rather tortuous 6-hour journey home but were entertained for a couple of hours by these boys who gave us, and the rest of traffic jam, an impromptu dance recital off the back of the lorry and in the road behind it. They had just walked a couple of hundred kilometres to Haridwar to pray to the god Shiva (as you do on a weekend) and were celebrating their return.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Settling into Delhi

Well I’ve been in Delhi for ten days and have now settled into my temporary home. I have a mobile phone with a Delhi number (00 91 97 1101 8492) and today I got an internet connection for my laptop so I don’t have to sit in sweaty internet cafés - I can sweat it out in the “comfort” of my own room instead. To be fair my room does have an en-suite bathroom and a fan but it’s basically a nun’s cell so I’m looking forward to moving to Bhawanipatna where I can at least put up pictures on the wall - not allowed here, I’ve tried. You do however get to meet lots if interesting people in the hostel. For example, the Dongria Tribe, who are fighting for their land and livelihood and who I gather have been in the British press and News at Ten recently, were staying here whilst they waited for the outcome of their case at the Supreme Court.

The Oriya lessons are going well although I need to put in a bit more work on the vocabulary front it’s just there’s so much else to do - eating, shopping etc. We went on a whistle-stop tour of Delhi last Saturday which I’m convinced took in absolutely everything you can possibly see - even if you were only given 10 minutes at each place. Oh sorry - apart from the Red Fort (Delhi’s primary tourist attraction) because, “Lot’s of people have seen pictures of it, it is very busy round there and difficult to get to”! I must say the highlight, just for the sheer bizarreness, was the bit at the end of the tour when a man got on the bus and tried to sell us lemon squeezers - complete with a TV-shopping-channel-style pitch and demonstration. Not quite sure what he did with the lemons but the squeezer doesn’t work nearly as well when you get it home - well mine doesn’t.

Off to see the Taj Mahal this weekend and, funnily enough, we’ve decided to skip the guided bus tour.