Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The end of an era

I've only been home for a couple of days and it feels very strange.  Everything is very familiar but also very alien and I no longer feel like some sort of celebrity that has to be greeted every time I walk down the street.

I haven't done very much yet, complete exhaustion hitting me as soon as I got to the safety of home.  On my first morning I went for a walk to try to get a bit of exercise after spending far too much time sitting around on trains, in planes or just waiting for things to happen.  Apart from feeling very cold after the extreme heat of Delhi and grappling with the discomfort of wearing walking boots after 9 months of wearing only flip flops on my feet, it was lovely.  There were vivid splashes of colour with bluebells, primroses, cowslips and apple trees among the bright greens of an English spring and the sky was a bright blue with wispy clouds and a morning moon showing.

A friend I made in India asked me what I missed and what I was looking forward to experiencing again when I returned home.  What I really missed was my family and friends of course but now I'm home I'm realising how many other things I missed as well.  The huge choice of products available in the market and shops is bewildering and it's hard to choose what to buy.  The cleanliness of both towns and countryside, litter not being a problem here.  The constant supply of electricity.  Knowing that it's safe to drink water that's come straight from the tap.  Broadband!

Yesterday I had a lovely lunch of French bread with 4 different sorts of locally made cheese (delicious) and dinner of roast pork (again, locally produced) with proper crackling, roast potatoes and parsnips freshly dug from my garden that afternoon, wilted spinach and steamed calabrese.  Today I had a bacon sandwich for breakfast, fresh, local asparagus for lunch and dinner will be a salad of fresh, mixed leaves, local tomatoes and cold meat.  Yes, I've missed the variety of foods we can get here and am relishing the different flavours and textures.

It seems strangely quiet here.  I have not heard a single horn since I left Delhi.  There are a few dog barks but not the howling that the feral dogs of India use to communicate with each other in the evenings. I drove today for the first time since my return.  I had felt a bit apprehensive about getting into the drivers seat again but it was less nerve-wracking than trying to cross roads in Delhi. 

The thing that I am really not looking foward to is getting back to work.  I don't yet know what I will be doing or where but the prospect of going back to work in the commercial world is not appealing and there are many other people looking for jobs as well so the competition for the good jobs is high.  That will be my next big adventure.  In the meantime, I will bring this blog to a close and say how much I will miss the friends I made out in India and the generosity of so many strangers.  I hope to be back sometime soon!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

It's cold!

After all my waiting for flights to resume in Europe to get home I found another hurdle to my return home.  I had finally managed to get a seat on a flight back home on Tuesday but when I tried to check in I came face to face with bureaucracy and was refused access through immigration and escorted out of the airport.

As required here in India, when I arrived in Koraput I had filled in forms and submitted photos and copies of passport and visa to register as a foreigner.  Unfortunately, I did not follow through and challenge the assurance that all was completed and insist that I got a piece of paper confirming registration in my possession.  Without that paper, I was not allowed to leave the country.  Trapped!  My fault of course for not continuously hassling colleagues to make sure that all the formalities were properly completed but this was all at a time when I was trying to get to grips with lots of new things - new job, new culture, new environment, new colleagues, new language etc and it just got forgotten about.  Which was very unfortunate.

The only way that we could work out that I would be sure to resolve the problem was to return to Koraput to complete the process, paying the fine as penalty for late registration.  We thought about trying to do the administration in Delhi but there was the risk that I'd be sent back to Orissa as the Delhi authorities would not have known what I had been doing in India.  I also thought about doing the task remotely, sending my papers by courier but that would take 3-4 days in each direction with the associated risk that there would be more delays if there was any problem iwth the paperwork.  So back to Koraput it was.

I decided to fly back as I couldn't face another 40 hours each way on the train.  We managed to get a seat on a flight on Wednesday and had a mad dash to go to the market to get passport photos and recharge my phone with more credit then back to the hotel for rapid packing of bags, flinging the things I thought I'd need for a brief visit into a small pack and shoving everything else into my big bags for storage at the Programme Office until I returned.  I couldn't find my Orissa SIM card which I'd put somewhere in the bottom of a bag, assuming that I wouldn't need it again in the foreseeable future but no matter, my contact back in Koraput knew my Delhi SIM card number.

I don't like airports.  They are stressful places at the best of times and by now I was highly stressed and feeling a complete idiot but I was amused to see security stopping a man trying to take toy machine gun in his hand luggage.   It made me start reading all the other things that aren't allowed - I knew about dynamite, knives, aerosols etc but cattle prods and throwing starplates?  I guess a cattle prod could be pretty nasty but what is a throwing starplate?  I decided that I was reassured to see that security is being taken seriously.

I settled down to the usual tedious wait for my flight and heard an announcement made about delay.  The screen message showed that it would leave half hour later than scheduled.  I started chatting to a friendly man who told me he came from Dehradun, surprised that I knew where it was but then thought that I heard my name over the tannoy.  I stopped talking and of course the announcement was not repeated but spotted that the board was showing that my flight had been brought back forward to it's original departure time.  At last, the message was repeated, stating that this was last announcement for boarding.  Rapid exit to the departure gate needed but I made it on board.

I landed in Visakhapatnam sometime after 7pm.  It was very easy for the taxi triver to find me at airport as I was the only white person there.  We drove through terrible traffic out of Vizag, taking about 2 hours just to clear the city and stopped at around 10:30 for some food at a truckers' dhaba.  I had a sneaking suspicion that I might have been the first white woman to have stopped there judging from the curious looks I got.  I was surprised to see a large herd of water buffalo being driven along the road at around 1:00am, maybe it's safer herding them at that time of night when the roads are quieter.  We arrived at my hotel at 1:30am but of course all the gates were padlocked and no-one answered the phone.  The taxi driver shouted loudly and rattled the metal gates to get the attention of someone inside, probably waking up all the hotel guests and half the neighbourhood in the process.  I hadn't used this hotel before although I'd been inside to attend a presentation.  It's managed by the Koraput Sri Jagannath temple and has a very homely feel.  It was very clean but I was a bit disconcerted to find a leech slithering around in my bathroom and that there was no towel.  My clean pyjama trousers became a towel substitute.

In the morning, colleague A from my NGO came to see me and told me he had to go to a meeting out in the field but that I should wait at the hotel for colleague B to collect me.  He also told that the NGO would pay the fine for late registration.  I only had my Delhi SIM card with me which doesn't have contact details for many Koraput colleagues and foolishly I didn't think to ask for the phone number for colleague B in case of any problems.  Meanwhile, colleague B was at the office, having been told to wait for me to go there.  He had tried to call me but only had the number for my Orissa phone which of course was switched off and back in Delhi.

After a couple of hours of waiting and trying to stay calm and patient I tried to call colleague A but his phone had no network coverage out in the field.  I tried phoning colleague D who I knew was at the same meeting but his phone wouldn't work either.  I sent a message home and asked Jon to hack into my mailbox and send a mail to colleague B giving him the right phone number and asking him to call me ASAP which he duly did and I managed to get to talk to said colleague and arrange for my collection from the hotel.  When we arrived at the NGO office I was surprised to be asked for the money to pay the late registration fine but fortunately had sufficient cash in my bag to pay the fee.

Off I went with colleague C to the office of the Superintendant of Police to lodge the paperwork, only to be told to return at 7:00pm the same day.  I had a rather fretful afternoon, worrying about the situation waiting for 7pm to arrive.  In the evening, I was told that when the registration was completed I then had to apply for permission to leave the country, sending my stress levels shooting up again and we were told to return the next morning.  By this time I was too wound up to sleep much and returned to the SP office the next day to be greeted by a 'very important' looking man who came outside laughing and said I was lucky he was on duty as it was all sorted out.  Which fortunately it was and I finally managed to get my registration documents and permission to leave India.

The next hurdle was returning to Delhi and getting a flight back to the UK.  I tried to send SMS messages and make a couple of calls only to find that my phone had no network coverage and was told that there was a big network problem that day.  Meanwhile, colleague A had gone to a travel agent with most of my remaining cash and some of his own to buy a ticket for me to return to Delhi.  The agent was supposed to bring me the ticket at the hotel.  I waited for the 15 minutes I was promised, then another 15 minutes and then some more before asking the hotel to take collection of the ticket when it arrived as I needed to contact people in Delhi and home.  So off I went to a cyber cafe, only to find that there was a power cut to add to the problems.  Fortunately it had an an inverter so I was able to get onto the internet and sent emails to people who needed to know about the success.  It's hard to hold proper conversations via email but it's better than nothing.  I then needed to photocopy my registration documents but the lack of electricity stopped that. 

While I was sat in the cyber cafe I overheard the teenager in charge of the place struggling to say my name and writing it out on a piece of paper.  Confused, I indicated that this was me that he was talking about but his lack of English and my poor Oriya made it difficult to understand what was happening.  I decided that maybe this was the travel agent that had been asked to get me a ticket to fly to Delhi but then was further surprised to see colleague C walking into the cyber cafe with a wad of cash.  He explained that the reservation that the first travel agent had made had gone wrong and been cancelled so they'd asked the people in the cyber cafe (which also doubles up as a travel agent) to get me a ticket.  They made a reservation but nothing could be printed as the power was still out.  Stress levels at boiling point by now.

I asked colleague C if he could give me a lift to an ATM to get more cash to pay the balance for my flight and the taxi fare and then on to the NGO office which still had power to make my photocopies.  He very kindly helped me to sort everything out and returned to the cyber cafe/travel agent to pick up the tickets later that afternoon.

Later in the afternoon I was invited to go round to the homes of colleagues A, C and D.  First house was colleague D where I met his wife and son and was shown round before being fed sweets, chai and juice.  I was taken to meet his neighbours then we moved onto the home of colleague C.  I was welcomed in to meet his 2 daughters, niece, wife and mother and was given fruit, sweets and juice before being taken outside to meet some of his neighbours and other relatives.  Last social visit for the day was to the house of colleague A to meet his wife and son for bhaji, more sweets and juice.  It was all very kind and touching to be greeted like a long-lost friend and I couldn't help feeling sad that I hadn't had similar invitations while I was still working and living in Koraput.  I might have felt less isolated.

Feeling full of very sweet food and drink I got back to the hotel and packed my bag ready for a 5:30am start the next day.  I had worried about waking the staff up at this time but it was not a problem at all.  This hotel, being attached to the temple opens up very early and I saw more people in reception at 5:30am than I had on the previous trips through.  I was able to enjoy the journey back to Vizag this time, feeling more relaxed after completing the administration and travelling in daylight.  The driver had brought his wife and 2 sons with him and they all sat in the back seat while I took the front passenger seat.  They were very friendly and well behaved and despite a minor vomiting incident in the back and slight concern when I saw a lorry skidding sideways along the road towards us after braking on the rough surface I enjoyed the drive.  The road twists and turns through spectacular hills, part of the Eastern ghats.  We spotted a snake slithering over the road, dozens of cattle, water buffalo and goats being taken to market on foot or lurching around on the back of open trucks or squashed into autos. 

The roads in Orissa are really bad, potholes and rough stony surfaces and little more than rough tracks in places, limiting speed to around 20km p/h some of the way (and this is a national inter-state highway).  There are frequently large rocks littering the road and  wrecks of lorries that didn't make the steep hills and hairpin bends litter roadside.  Some stretches of the road are being rebuilt and there were piles of rocks along some stretches with people wielding hammers breaking them down into smaller  pieces for hardcore which looked really hard work.

We stopped for breakfast at another dhaba in Vizniagaram where I had iddli and chai.  Back in the car I was given a banana and a sweet fizzy drink as I was their guest before being dropped safely at the airport to catch my flight.  Unfortunately, I had selected a flight that required me to change to a different flight en route (much much cheaper than a direct flight) and I had a 4 hour stopover in Hyderabad.   However, I made it back to Delhi, arrived at a hotel near the airport and was reunited with my big bags that had been secured in the office in Delhi.  I sunk down with a cup of tea at about 10pm then reorganised my luggage yet again before retiring to bed in an effort to get some sleep before getting up to leave for the airport at 5am the next day. 

This time I got through immigration successfully and had a comfortable and punctual flight back home.  Looking down at the land below the plane as we came into land I was struck at how green everything looked, a really vivid green after the dry Indian countryside.  Getting off the plane my first reaction was how cold and wet it was but I guess that's to be expected, coming home to England after 9 months in India.  It's around 4164 miles/6701 km from Delhi to London then another 110 miles/1609 km back to my home.  That journey took 15 hours including the 3 hours hanging around Delhi airport, about the same time as it took me to get from Koraput to Delhi.

I will bring this blog to a close soon now that I am no longer in Koraput.  However, over the next couple of days I will take my camera out with me to try to capture the things that surprise or delight me on my return home for my final post.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I'm still waiting

I have always said I'd love to go and see an active volcano, all the photos and films that I have seen make them look exciting if terrifying.  However, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland is one volcano that I wish would just put the lid back on and stop belching out ash.  The European airspace has started to open up a little today but the renewed volcanic activity may bring it all grinding back to a halt.  It is very frustrating, after reaching that difficult decision to end my placement early as I'd completed most of the tasks that I set out to achieve and had little prospect of being able to make further progress in the immediate future, I now just want to be back home with my family and friends.

We had a bit of excitement in the apartment yesterday evening.  I returned back from my daily wanderings of Delhi and noticed a strong, pungent and unpleasant smell filling the main living-room and dining area.  Assuming it was some cleaning product I just walked through quickly to my room and proceeded to fling down my bag and boot up my computer to check the state of the airspace before going for a shower.  This was followed up by a strange man flinging open my bedroom door and telling me to get out quickly.  It seemed that there had been a release of battery acid following a reaction with water and gases had filled the apartment.  We traipsed round to another apartment while poor Junior leaned over a drain retching and coughing as he'd had a face full of the gas, emitting from the back-up electricity supply battery that kicks in during the many power cuts.  Fortunately he had not suffered any serious injury and seemed fine after a good night's sleep.

Delhi is really hot.  I have a thermometer that I've been using to monitor the temperature while here in India.  On Sunday, I went out to do some sightseeing and took the thermometer for a ride with me.  It measured a maximum of 51.4c (that's 129.38f for my American friends).  No wonder I was thirsty.  However, despite the blazing sun, I had a really interesting visit to Mehrauli, a district not far from Vasant Kunj where I am currently based in south Delhi.  Mehrauli is one of the 7 ancient cities that make up the state of Delhi.  There are some fascinating archaeological remains there which deserved more than the few hours that I stayed out in the sun to explore properly

One of Delhi's great monuments is the Qutb Minar, at over 72m high the world's tallest free-standing minaret.  The minaret was built on the site of Lal Kot, the red citadel of the city of Dhillika, the capital of the last Hindu rulers of Delhi.  Materials from that ruin was used to build this tower with it's red sandstone and carvings of verses from the Qur'an.

The minaret was built as a victory tower, celebrating the end of the Hindu kingdoms of northen India and the start of muslim rule.  It is one of the earliest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture and building was started in 1193 by the first muslim ruler of India Qutb-ud-din Aibak and completed nearly 200 years later in 1386.

It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I was fortunate enough to have visited on World Heritage Day when entrance was free.

There are many other interesting ruins in the Qutb Complex, including the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. This was built around the same time as the minaret was started and the first mosque built in Delhi after the Islamic conquest of India.


In the surrounding archaeological park of Mehrauli there are more stepwells, similar to the one I had visited a few days earlier near to Connaught Place.  They are all dry now but used to fill during monsoon season, providing a water supply and a place of leisure, people finding shade under the arches and swimming in the water.  Rajon ki Baoli is the bigger of the two wells that I found, very wide and spacious and an impressive piece of architecture.  Gangdak ki Baoli, situated down a narrow lane in Mehrauli is much deeper comprising 5 tiers, each narrowing as you move towards the base.  Shame the wells were dry, I'd have loved to go for a swim to try to cool down a little.

I had only got part of the way round my planned walk of the park when I realised that I had nearly run out of water.  This was not a good position to be in with the sun reaching it's zenith.  An Indian man started to talk to me about the Rajon ki Baoli, next to where we were standing.  I asked him where the closest bottled water seller was and he kindly ran off with 15 of my rupees, returning 5 minutes later with a bottle of chilled, clean water.  There are some lovely people around in India.  He carried on telling me about the area and walked with me to find a couple more of the ruins that I was interested in seeing.  I would never have found the second stepwell without his assistance.
He also took me to a spectacular Jain temple, the Jain Mandir Dadabar, a glittering marble, coloured glass and mirrored confection.  It was amazing but I had to keep my sunglasses on all the way round, even under cover because of the glare from the bright materials.  The hard thing about this visit was removing my shoes before I entered the sanctum.  The ground was burning hot so I had to run across the tarmac, concrete and baked marble as quickly as I could to escape the burning sensation on the soles of my feet.

The best thing about still being in Delhi is that it is now mango season.  Bring them on!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Trying times

I arrived in Delhi 4 days ago.  Stepping off the air-conditiioned train felt like walking into an oven and reminded me how much milder the climate is in Koraput.  A porter grabbed my bags on the train and proceeded to try to charge me 150 rupees for the privelage of carrying them about 20 steps across the platform.  The going rate is 30 rupees.  I declined to pay him such an exorbitant amount, much to his disgust. I guess this is the price I had to pay for travelling on 1-AC, the only berths available for several days, marking me out as a 'rich' westerner with lots of money to spare.

VSO have housed me in an apartment in Vasant Kunj, sharing with 4 young women staying in Delhi to attend a training course.  They are very nice and friendly but it feels very odd to be sharing with people after so long living alone and is taking some getting used to.  The apartment is kept spotlessly clean by the 'boy',  Junior, who has also been bringing me food from a nearby canteen.  Lots of food.  Too much food.  Junior does not speak English and I do not speak Hindi but we seem to be managing.  However, after a long time of looking after myself, both here in India and my other life in the UK (it is after all, many years since I left my parental home!) I'm finding it strange to have someone waiting on me in my home, even if it is only a temporary home.

I met up with the VSO India country director to talk about my placement in Koraput and discuss what other volunteer options might be available to me.  I had been very tempted with one that I'd already heard about in Bolangir, back in Orissa but having travelled for 40 hours on trains to get from Orissa to Delhi I didn't feel much like reversing the journey to get back to close to where I'd started.  We also explored opportunities here in Delhi but just a few hours in this city was enough to make me realise that I could not stay here for long.  It is vibrant, there is lots to do and interesting things to see but it is also busy, noisy, dirty and above all at the moment, very very hot.  Most of India is hot at this time of year and will of course get hotter and more uncomfortable coming up to the monsoon season as the humidity rises but at least Koraput has the advantage of being in the hills, making it a little cooler.  I have therefore decided to go home to the UK, hopefully being able to continue to provide a little support to SPREAD remotely.

Which has brought me to the next problem.  Volcanic ash.  All airports in the UK have been closed and at the time of writing this, I have no idea when they will reopen.  This is of course very frustrating as I can't plan what to do with my time.  I could have a flight in 3 days time, on the other hand could have to wait another 2 weeks UK flights grounded.  Vasant Kunj is on the edge of the city, close to the airport (handy for when I do eventually get to fly) but a long way from most of the places of interest in Delhi and costly in taxis or autos.  Maybe I should just give up waiting around and travel up into the north for a week and hope that the dust has settled next weekend?

In the meantime, I managed to go out with my friend M to see the stepwell in the middle of Delhi, Agresen ki Baoli.  I had never heard of stepwells before and this one in Delhi is not mentioned in any of the guidebooks I've read but the one I visited is a fascinating place.  They seem to have served a dual purpose, both storing and supplying water and for leisure, providing some shade from the blistering heat of the Indian sun Stepwells.  There are more in Delhi which hopefully I will be able to visit while I'm here but first I will have to go and find somewhere to buy a new brolly to replace the one that I left in an auto.  No rain at the moment but they are great for keeping the heat of the sun off your head.

After exploring the well and admiring the very noisy bats hanging from the roof and pigeons in the recesses, I decided that I would treat myself to a good lunch.  Koraput is lovely - clean air, friendly, relatively quiet and with a good supply of  fresh vegetables but there is nowhere for us westerners to go and indulge ourselves with the sort of treat that we might occasionally have at home.

We walked round to the Imperial Hotel for a bit of luxury in one of the restaurants there but were not impressed by the service.  A waiter came to see us soon after we arrived, bringing us menus.  We immediately asked him to bring us a bottle of mineral water as we were very thirsty after being out in the midday sun.  Half an hour later we were still waiting.  M went to see one of the other waiters to repeat the order for water and give our food order.  We continued waiting.  After another 10 minutes we decided we'd had enough and stomped out and went into another part of the hotel.  A very nice young woman in the bakery section asked if she could help and when we explained the problem, told us to sit down and she'd make sure we were looked after.  True to her promise, she did and we were brought our water which we proceeded to drink very quickly before we indulged in very nice quiche and fruit smoothies.

I then decided that I'd buy myself a couple of snacks from the bakery (such produce not being available in Koraput) to take back to my apartment for supper as I'd already had a good meal at lunch and wouldn't need much more food.  I chose a Danish pastry, apple tart but declined to purchase a hot cross bun when I found out how much they cost.  However, one of these buns was slipped into my box without charge, maybe as an apology for having to wait.  The pastries were lovely and such a treat after so long without such delights.  The only trouble was that Junior proceeded to bring me a dinner of mutter paneer, some other sort of curry, vegetables, rice and roti as well.  There can be problems when you don't speak each other's languages.

I've been trying to rationalise my luggage, deciding what I really want to take with me and what to leave behind to reduce my load when I eventually manage to get on board a plane headed for home.  I got a bit worried when I saw that the zip was tearing away from the body of my case and decided I either needed to find some strong sticky tape to strap it all together and hope it would survive baggage handling or go out to buy a new case.  I had decided on the latter as luggage is probably much cheaper here in India than in the UK but then one of my flat-mates told me that Junior could get it mended for me.  And he did.  He marched off with my empty, split case and a 100 rupee note to a nearby cobbler and returned half an hour later with a case as good as new (well, almost) and 60 rupees change.   India seems to be very good at fixing things, not like our throwaway society in Europe and North America.  I now have to get everything repacked.

The auto drivers seem to have problems finding their way round Vasant Kunj.  To my outsider's eye it looks very anonymous with few easily identifiable landmarks.  I am not sure that there is much logic to the block numbering system either.  You might think that Block C would be next to Block B or that Sector 3 next to Sector 4 but I'm not convinced this is the case here.  The drivers I've used so far keep stopping, leaping out to ask for directions, driving a few more metres then stopping again, looking just as confused as I feel.  My journey last night had the added interest of being driven several hundred metres along the wrong side of a dual carriageway to get to a filling station.  I guess that was the shortest routes but I am a coward when being driven into queues of fast moving traffic going the opposite way to us.  After refilling with gas we proceeded (in the right direction this time, thankfully) and meandered along for another half hour, looking for the apartments.  However, we got back safely and parted with smiles.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Moving on

I was invited to join in the first birthday celebrations of the youngest son of one of my NGO colleagues. This was the second time that I had been to the Jagannath Temple in Koraput for a birthday party and the kids seem to find it a great place to race around chasing each other in the safety of the temple compound. The culture requires that you remove your shoes to enter temples here which I dutifully did. The trouble was, in the heat of the midday sun, the marble steps were foot-blisteringly hot so I had to race up the long flight of steep steps extra quick to try to keep my feet on the ground for the minimum possible time but the soles of my feet were still sore from the hot stone. It was a relief to get into the shade and cool of the stone floors sheltered and the burnt skin is still peeling off my feet a week later.

After much soul-searching and discussion, I made the decision a couple of weeks ago to leave Koraput and travel on to different things. I've been working hard since I arrived last August and managed to complete some challenging pieces of work but I decided that it was the right time for me to move on. It was very odd saying goodbye to everyone and sad that I didn't see everyone I'd hoped for but as I hate saying goodbye anyway, I was glad that my departure was not too prolonged.

I spent a few days going through everything in my house, working out what to take with me, what to give to someone else or the next volunteer in the house and what to simply throw out. The ants and weevils decided for me in some cases and several items of foodstuff had to be discarded after serious infestation. I could not work out how ants had managed to invade a brand new box of cornflakes, still heat-sealed and seeming still to be airtight. It's not a pretty sight, pouring out breakfast at the start of the day and finding hundreds of ants swarming over it. The cows seemed to enjoy the flakes, ants and all.

My last couple of days in Koraput had the added entertainment of the Brahmin family who lived in the house opposite to mine celebrating the coming of age of the teenage son Hindu Initiation.  This is an important ritual for Brahmin boys, signifying a new stage in life but as with most ceremonies in India, it meant lots of noise with conch shells being blown loudly from very early in the morning until late at night (I think I heard the first one of the day at 5am), combined with music coming from horns, drums and loudspeakers.  There were many visitors to the house, probably the whole extended family, all dressed in their finest with the women in gloriously coloured and embroidered saris, some of the men wearing all white khurta and salwar and the boy wearing red with an elaborate head dress.  I was a little worried as the road was blocked by the festivities for several hours and my train was due in later in the afternoon but fortunately, it reached a conclusion shortly before my friends arrived with the vehicle to take me to the station.  My friend Sheila who had come from nearby and hotter Rayagada for a couple of days rest and recuperation and relative coolness hadn't bargained on the early morning horn alarms.  My departure was accompanied by shouted 'bye byes' from the colourfully dressed kids who had joined in the celebrations.

I was given a lift to the station in Koraput which was a relief, it's no fun trying to negotiate a reasonable price with the auto drivers when they see a white woman streaming with sweat, struggling under the weight of large heavy bags.  I was very touched to be given some parting gifts, including a bunch of pretty flowers which accompanied me on my travels on the overnight train to Bhubaneswar, sat in the water bottle holder before coming to spend a day and a night with me in a hotel while waiting for my next train.  But why does a hotel, advertising it's room rates as including a one-way journey to or from the station or airport then turn round and say that it's only a pick-up service, not drop off?  I had decided that I'd find my own transport from the station to the hotel then make use of the hotel service to take me back to the station for the morning train.  The irritating thing is that when I talked to the receptionist on arrival to check that they would arrange the morning journey without additional charge, I was told yes.  I've begun to think that yes may be the standard response when they don't really understand what you are saying and so just say yes, to try to keep you happy.  I really should have tried harder at my Oriya lessons.

However, I found a nice cycle-rickshaw wallah to take me from station to hotel at a very reasonable price and carried my heaviest bag on his head before struggling to cycle up the slope from the station with a heavy load.  In the morning, I staggered back to the main road carrying my bags in the morning to find an auto driver to take pity on me.  I seemed to cause much amusement with my heavy bags - big rucksack on my back, small rucksack on my front and small (heavy) case on wheels.  I had to help the driver lift the big rucksack into his auto before being driven to the station and getting on board the luxury of the air-conditioned Rajdhani Express on my way to Delhi, a mere 25 hours and more than 1800 kilometres away.  At least I have the privelage of sitting in air-conditioned luxury.  The only berths available for several days were 1AC, the first class air-conditioned coaches which are much more costly than the others but a very nice treat.  I should add that the extra cost of this luxury will not be borne by VSO but were paid for by my lovely husband who helped me out with booking tickets online when my internet connection wouldn't work. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

Another couple of my epics

I was away from my home in Koraput for 3 weeks and I'd left my PC behind, not wanting to carry it around with me while negotiating the 14.5 hour train ride, buses, autos, airports and taxis.  While I was away my modem subscription expired.  I have a modem plan where I pay a monthly subscription for unlimited access to the internet but felt there was little need to renew my access while several hundred miles away from my computer.  The day of my return I sent an SMS message to R, the supplier of my modem, hoping that he'd keep his promise to renew it whenever I asked and I'd pay him later (actually, I sent it 3 times to the 3 different numbers I have for him).  I got back home to Koraput in the middle of the night but wide awake after a long journey so I quickly logged on to check my mail and update my virus checker while I removed the dead cockroach wedged in the drain of my sink and scraped off the thick layer of red dust that had accumulated over everything in my absence.

The next day (Sunday) I was slightly concerned to see a couple of messages come through on the modem indicating that I'd downloaded from the internet and owed 13.2 rupees which had not been charged due to less balance.  This was my first warning that the subscription had not been renewed.  I braved the Orissi heat and walked to the market to R's store to pay him the cost of the month's subscription.  R said he hadn't received my SMS, meaning I'd used my modem without the unlimited access that I thought I had in place.  I told him I'd used it yesterday and handed over my money and believed the promise that the modem would be recharged with my subscription later that day as they couldn't access the internet at that time from that store.  I kept checking my modem and laptop all day but in vain. 

Monday: still no recharge confirmation message so I called R and asked for the renewal to be completed ASAP as I really needed my access restored.  He promised it would be done within an hour.  I waited an hour, checked, checked again and eventually called him again after about 2 hours.  "Yes, yes, it will go through soon" he promised.  I waited another couple of hours and called again.  "It hasn't gone through yet?  I'll just check to see what's happened and call you back within an hour".  Guess what?  No recharge message and no phone call.  Feeling myself getting somewhat agitated and wanting to avoid swearing at someone over the pbone messages I sent SMS messages to the 3 contact numbers I have for R.

Tuesday: My modem was still not working.  I was in the office and managed to make use of the office internet connection for a couple of hours until that also stopped working, probably due to one of the many power cuts that plague us here in Orissa.  I went home feeling my stress levels rising and called R.  Someone else answered his phone and promised to look into it and get back to me within an hour.  So I waited.  No phone calls were received.  More SMS messages sent expressing my displeasure and I gave up for the day.

Wednesday: ditto much of the above except that today I got a recharge confirmation message on my modem.  However, it still refused to work.  A phone call to R who promised to find out what was happening and get back to me within an hour.  Several hours later I gave up and went to bed, grumbling.

Thursday: I walked through the blazing midday heat to R's store carrying my laptop and modem.  There were some really important emails that I should have sent earlier in the week and I was getting increasingly stressed by the delays and false promises.  My visit was been preceded by SMS messages to the 3 phone numbers I have for R to let him know I was on my way.  Could this have been a cue for R to hide?  R was not in the store but there were 3 other people I'd seen working in there in the past, 2 young women that I know who had come into the shop with me _ another 3 random Koraputians, including a small boy who kept whacking my leg.  As soon as the young woman member of staff saw me she picked up the phone and spoke to someone in extremely fast Oriya but I did catch the my name amongst the rest of the words.  She thrust the phone into my hands and said "R.  You speak".  So I did and was promised again that it would be dealt with and my modem recharged.  I handed the phone back to the young woman. 

Meanwhile, one of the of the other staff in the shop was on a different phone, apparently talking to customer care.  I caught enough of his conversation to know that the supplier was claiming I owed them money which did not surprise me as I'd use the modem without before recharge had gone through.  The man told me that I owed them 450 rupees, I little excessive I thought as the messages I'd received suggested I owed just 13.2 rupees.  I asked what I needed to do to get it fixed but just got blank looks.  The young woman assistant asked me for my modem to test it in her PC.  Not surprisingly, she told me it wasn't working.  I asked what I needed to do to get the service restored but again, just got blank looks except that this time, everyone in the shop started laughing, not doing much to restore my temper.  I shouted at the 2 young women who had accompanied me on my errand that I was glad that they found it funny because I didn't.  Cue more laughter. 

I stood up, demanded my modem back and stormed out of the store, followed closely by my 2 friends nervously asking me what the matter was.  By this time I was on the point of bursting into tears with anger, frustration, irritation and rising panic about not getting out my emails which needed to be sent from my laptop as there were files on my PC that needed to be attached.  I tried to explain that access to the internet is something that is really important to me while out in rural India, this being my primary means of communicating with my friends and family back home as well as the only way I have to get messages out when the phone just isn't enough.  We walked round to R's other outlet, a tiny little shop selling crisps, sweets, tobacco and phone/modem recharges.  R wasn't there but I was relieved to see K, R's brother.  K has always been helpful to me in the past and speaks quite good English.  He'd clearly been forewarned of my arrival and did his best to calm me down, promising me he'd get it sorted out within an hour and that he'd call me to let me know. 

On Wednesday evening I had visited B, a young woman who lives nearby.  B has been learning English and has always been friendly, trying to get to know a bit about my culture at the same time as practising her English.  I asked her if she could help me with getting a couple of parcels sent back home to the UK.  I knew that parcels have to be wrapped in cotton and stitched up before you could post them.  I wasn't sure where to go to get the stitching done here in Koraput and as I wanted a bit of company as well, hoped she might accompany me and help explain what was needed.  I explained what I needed to do and she said "you get cotton and stitch".  I asked where to get the cotton, what tailor I could use to do the stitching and whether she'd come with me.  She agreed and we decided to go out the next morning at 10.  10:15 I called at B's house.  She was still having her morning bath.  10:40 we left and walked into the town.  She asked me "you stitched the parcels?"  Repeating my request for help I explained that no, no stitching done and I needed to get the cloth to do the wrapping.  "you went to market last night to get cloth?".  No, I needed to buy the cloth was my response. 

We arrived at a cloth store and bought cloth for 40 rupees.  We then went to a tailor and sat there for about 20 minutes while the parcels were stitched.  Another 30 rupees.  We went to the Post office and spoke to a man behind the counter.  He told me they needed to be sealed with wax, something I should have remembered having posted things from India before but had completely forgotten and my previous attempts had used Post Offices where they supplied the wax and sealed the parcels for you (some readers may remember a previous visit I reported in http://community.vsointernational.org/blogs/hilaryjw/epics ).  I found out from him where to get the wax and and asked whether he would put the wax on.  Yes, was his response.  I found the wax shop and returned with a stick of wax.  The man in the PO then said very patiently that I needed to put the wax onto the seams.  I took a deep breath, said OK and walked out again with B.  B took me to her friend A's house who fortunately lived opposite the PO.  A candle was lit and I proceeded to burn my fingers while smearing wax on the seams very inexpertly.  Back to the PO for a long wait as a queue had materialised in my absence, getting irritated by 2 people who shoved in front of me and got served out of turn.  Success at last, I managed to get my 2 parcels posted home.  But will they arrive?

The Post Office visit was done just before my visit to R's store.  Maybe not the best preparation for a frustrating and lengthy discussion with a group of very well-meaning Indian staff, wanting to help me but not having a great knowledge of English and not understanding half of what I said to them.  I have had to learn to speak much more slowly and clearly here in India, realising that just as I can't understand Oriya when people speak at their normal speed, Indians can't understand English if I speak at my normal speed.  I think that as my stress levels rose, my speech speeded up and they didn't understand anything I said and were worried because they thought I was angry with them. 

My 2 young friends marched me off to the lassi seller and ordered us all a nice, cool lassi which helped to restore some life back into me before I visited the banana ladies to replenish my banana supply and then got an auto home.  I can't cope with walking the mile uphill back home in heat of over 45c.

B asked me into her home and sat me down with a cup of cool water and tried to explain to me that the people in the shop were nervous of me because I was angry and they didn't understand what I was saying.  My phone rang and it was K, asking me to check my modem.  Hurrah - back online!  I am now working on this modem at the giddy speed of a 2.4kbps.  But at least it's working.

There is a moral to my story well explained by my friend Jen in her blog http://jeninorissa.blogspot.com/2010/04/25-things-to-do-while-in-india-aka.html

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A few Darjeeling animals

I put aside my prejudices about zoos to visit the zoological park in Darjeeling.  I don't like seeing big animals caged up with little to do and getting stressed by visitors shouting at them but this zoo has some rare Himalayan species with captive breeding programmes for snow leopards, red pandas, Tibetan wolves and others and a couple of Bengal tigers that were rescued from circuses and it was really interesting.  Darjeeling has a fair number of other animals wandering round including the inevitable street dogs and monkeys that seem to live happily alongside each other.

A great holiday but I have now left the cool of the Darjeeling hills to head back for the heat of Orissa. It will be hotter than ever.  It will be good to get back to work to try to finish off as much as I can before leaving India at the end of my placement.  I did after all come here to work, not to be a tourist.