Wednesday, January 28, 2009


   So it has taken me a while to get to it but I have finally found the time to write about our trip to Agra. Nothing like a bout of Delhi belly to sap you of energy and slow you down a bit!

   Our trip to see the Taj Mahal was a little impromptu, it was something we thought we would make the time to do while in India but if it didn't happen we were not bothered... after all it is an old leaky building.
  However, Ray thought it would be great to spend some informal time one of the German Board members (Dirk) and a friend of his (Alfons), who mentioned they were heading down to Agra, and offered to for us all to travel together in the one vehicle. This meant we could share the cost of transport if we hired a car and of course the more the merrier. We set off early one morning for the 4 hour drive south, stopping at a roadside tourist stop for breakfast. It must have been one of those places where tourist buses frequent as there was imported chocolates, cookies and other luxuries from all over the world. In India everything has been given a set retail price which is printed on the label, but in this tourist stop that rule did not seem to apply. If a roll of toilet paper said 50 rupees on it they would charge you 80. The shop also sold loads of local arts and crafts also at over inflated prices. Needless to say I am not a fan of such places. I am not saying I want to beat people down to the lowest price possible, but I would rather pay a more reasonable price to a person who was perhaps involved in the manufacture or is at least a little closer to the source.
   By lunch time we arrive at our hotel...Hotel Maya-meaning illusion in Hindi. It was a quaint little hotel with a rooftop view to the Taj. One of the first things I did of course was to head up there and check it out. Dirk and I both looked at it rather unmoved and I simply said I hope its more spectacular up close. 
  Before heading off on our site seeing jaunt we sat down for lunch at the hotels outdoor balcony restaurant. It was a great place made more enjoyable for the kids by the fact that the waiters carried sling shots aptly named monkey guns to deter the would be food thieves. Unfortunately for some, the waiters were not always on the ball and we watched as a monkey deftly swooped on a table and took off with a nice piece of chicken tikka in hand.

   After lunch we headed to the Taj. The parking place is about 500 metres away and the second we pulled up we were swamped by every kind of service imaginable- cycle rickshaws, horse drawn carriages, advice on what to do, guides, guide books and every kind of Taj Mahal paraphernalia imaginable. In the end we settled on an over priced guide and insisted that we walk to the Taj- afterall we had been in a car all day. The walk was entertaining with everyone hounding us to buy there wares or trying to entice us into their store. So we made it to the ticket gate with our foreigners price of 750 rupees ready to hand over (thank you Bill Clinton- locals only pay 20) thankfully the kids were free. As with everywhere the security is pretty tight, we queued up for the ubiquitous metal detector scan and bag check.  Once through you enter the outer area. Here we had a long and interesting explanation about the layout, architecture, history etc but really I couldn't wait to head in through the main gate and finally see what all the fuss is about.
    Well... I have to admit it truly is an amazing structure. So what makes it so amazing? The precision for the era in which it is built; the detail of the intricate marble and semi precious stone work; the 20,000 people working 24 hours per day for 22 years to build it and the story behind it. Interestingly the guy that commissioned it had planned to build a second Taj Mahal for himself; it was to be made of black marble and was to be opposite the white one on the other side of the Jamuna river, with a marble bridge connecting them both. You can see the site where construction started but was ultimately abandoned when the guys son put him in gaol in the Agra fort overlooking the white Taj Mahal. Can you imagine if the black one was completed... what a sight!
  We enjoyed several hours at the Taj exploring the grounds and just enjoying being in India. I think I photographed it from just about every possible angle and Hunter once again was very popular with all the Indian tourists and posed for many photographs. Before we left we all sat at the entrance of the main gate and enjoyed watching the setting sun change the light over the white marble. Well worth the experience, even if it did cost $20US

  As we walked back to the car I think we were approached by twice as many touts. We did stop at one marble shop with workers demonstrating their intricate craft of inlaying semi-precious stones...apparently they were decedents of those who actually worked at the Taj. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, their work was amazing. 
  It seems that most things in Agra are made from white marble... this included our beds at the hotel which were a thin foam mattress on a raised platform of white marble... great hotel and bargain price at $15 per person per night! 
  That night we ate at a restaurant aptly named the Taj Mahal, where I discovered Afghani Chicken... I am sorry India but the Afghans know their flavours  pretty well also! Does anyone know if you can get this in Australia?

  Day 2 in Agra we kept up with seeing the sites. First we headed to the Agra Fort, where we decided to forgo a tour guide and simply rely on the Lonely Planet. Another amazing place but I am not going to go into the detail because anyone but me would find my description boring and frankly you have to see it to appreciate it (unless you are some kind of history buff, which I am not). From Agra fort we crammed all 6 of us plus a driver into an auto rickshaw and headed to a market place. We spent a few hours wandering around the crowded market place taking in the sites and watching the paan vendors mix their creations and wrap them up in a paan leaf (one day I will try one). Dirk led us down some of the narrow alleyways that led into a very condensed  housing area, it was interesting to see inside the real Agra, with water rushing through narrow drains, small children running around unattended, monkeys climbing on every building and trying to reach through the thickly screened windows trying to snatch some food. It is sobering to think that any one of us could have been born into the city of Agra and have a totally different life to the one we are accustomed too. The unfortunate thing about Agra is that for the amount of tourist dollars that is being poured into the city very little is being spent on fixing up the city itself... I hate to sound harsh but Agra itself is a dive.
   Our final stop for the day was Akbar's tomb, which once again housed some amazing architecture with intricate inlaid detail. The gardens of this tomb housed a deer park as well as several species of monkeys and a few exotic birds including peacocks all wandering around together free range. Sam really enjoyed being a wildlife photographer while in the garden and took some great snaps, some of which I have uploaded to Picasa.
  From Akbar's tomb we headed back to Delhi. The trip was largely uneventful aside from the horrendous traffic and Ray having a slight episode of Delhi belly. I have to say I found the drive home particularly tedious. By this stage I was feeling a little worn out from the weeks of travel and I was looking forward to a few days at home doing nothing. I think it is very easy to become worn out in India; it is such a busy place and such an assault to the senses. You really need time here to be able to stop and find a quite place to recover every now and then.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

B for Bombay

I am yet to write about our trip to Agra, but today is not the day...

  We have had a great couple of days back in Delhi. Today was a quiet day at home, but not at all dull. 
  -Ray left at 8.30 am to travel to Faridabad to inspect a possible property for the project.
  -For the kids and I it started out a quiet morning. Sam had breakfast in bed...chips, mandarin and banana (its Saturday, I didn't feel like going out and the fridge blew up so we have no other food). I spent the morning pottering around the house, sorting out the washing, helping Hunter with her piano, brushing up on the Hindi alphabet and catching up with friends and family via skype. Sam eventually emerged from bed at noon and proceeded to chat with his grandparents for a few hours. I then get a phone call from the front gate... didn't understand a word so I said nahi Hindi, English... I wait then some one says electricity working? I assume he means the electrician is here to fix the fridge and the hot water heater. 5 minutes later a knock at the door. The electrician comes in and fixes the plug from the fridge... I am laughing now as I think back to Thursday when the electrician first came by to see what the problem was. Ray using charades pointed to the fridge and makes a sound like an explosion with hand gestures... the electrician looked at him like he was an alien... I guess you had to be there but it still cracks me up. So... he replaces the plug and the fridge is running. Next issue the hot water heater, 5 minutes later he has that working but then the charades of explaining how to work it. I picked up a few phrases... 5 minutes, half and hour, warm water, on and off....But just to make sure I wasn't risking future electrocution I called Shekhar to interpret... All good... And the cost for an electrician, new plug and repairs... $3... love it! And now I can have 10 minute hot showers instead of 5 minutes... as long as I keep the water pressure to a trickle.
  The rest of the afternoon was uneventful.... (black typing in the dark....aah, generator has kicked in, lights on) Ray had downloaded a copy of high school musical 3 as we somehow missed it at the cinemas; it came and went in under a week. Apparently this was because it was rated the equivalent of MA so no kids actually could watch it. So we watched our dodgy German subtitled one today (sorry Disney, but Hunter couldn't wait for the DVD and we will purchase an original when it comes out!).
  The highlight of my day today had to be Ray ordering home delivery Indian for dinner. We only order from one place as it is the only one that seems to be willing to take our order in English... frankly I don't understand why the other delivery joints bother printing English menus and distributing them. So... ordering never takes less than 10 minutes due to the language barrier but this time was particularly entertaining... here is an abridged script...

RAY: Hello, I would like to order take-away.
Saleems: Yes, what do you want?
R: take away, delivery...
S:what is your order
R: I would like 3 Chicken tikka roll
S: 3 chicken tikka
R: roll
R: roll roll
S: ha, 3 chicken tikka roll
R: Yes... 1 aloo roll
S: ha
R: 1 chilly chicken dry
S: chilly chicken
R: dry
S: dry?
R: dry
S: ha
R: and 8 butter naan.
S: ?
R: 8, aat, butter naan, butter naan
S: ?
R: 8 butter naan, roti
S: ha
R: plot 9
S: 59
R: no plot 9
R: no, plot 9, P L O T, plot 9
S: ha
R: sector 45
R: sector 45
S: ha
R: Doordahan apartments (said about 5 times)
S: number?
R: B 604
S: 604
R: B 604, B B B
S: 604?
R: B, B for Barry. B604
S: B, B for Bombay
R: ha OK B for Bombay, B 604.

this goes on for some time...including mobile number.

R: please confirm the order (necessary after last time)
S: 3 chicken tikka roll, 1 aloo roll, 1 chili chicken dry... excellent
R: the naan what about the naan
S: ?
R: 8 butter naan
S: naan?
R: butter naan, 8, aat, butter naan?
R: naan, roti, butter naan, 8
S: ha, 2 butter naan.
R: NO. 8, 8 ? 8
S: ha, 8 butter naan, excellent.
R: please confirm the order...

and on it goes... the kids and I were in stitches.
It will be interesting to see what arrives.
You may be wondering why so many naan... we will save 4 to have with jam for breakfast... best jam ever!

hope you all enjoy your dinner... whatever it may be... I know we will

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


It has been 10 days since my last post, which is way too long! I prefer to do more regular posts so I don't forget the little details of our time here which really add to the whole experience. For me this blog is not only a great way to keep in contact and to let our friends and family know what is happening but it is really my journal as well; it would take too much time for me to keep them separate.

So what have we been up to... Well I expected that now that our long distance travels are over that things would quieten down a bit but it seems that one meeting leads to the next and when I think we finally have a quiet day at home inevitably we end up with an appointment to visit another organisation.
  So the day after we arrived back in Delhi we went and visited an organisation called Prayas. This is an organisation which originated in the north of Delhi after a slum fire which left many children orphaned and many others homeless. The organisation was started by an Indian police officer who was overwhelmed by the need. Since then the organisation has grown and has many facilities throughout India. The beauty of this organisation is the education and training opportunities it offers, with a vast array of vocations from baking, teaching, nursing, sewing and even beauty therapies. I have to say the baked goods were delicious. The particular place we visited was a boys home thus Sam was quite popular and regularly engaged in conversation with the boys. The Prayas website is  and is well worth a look. We hope to make the time to see some of their other facilities outside of Delhi as we think there is much that we can learn from them in terms of equipping people with vocational skills once they have regained their health. As with all our visits, be it quick or extended, this one to Prayas was not without incident. Of course we got lost in the way as there is no such thing as a street directory in India so unlike Australian males, Indians rely on stopping and asking for directions. Then when it was time to go home our driver had some how managed to lose the car keys; so being India there is no roadside service as such but within minutes a guy showed up who was apparently a locksmith. So with nothing more than a blank key and a file he made a new key for the car. It was a very interesting process. In a nut shell he broke into the car popped the boot and removed its locking mechanism and then by feel he spent about half an hour shaping a new key according to the boot lock. After he had it working in the boot and doors he then made the final adjustments to the key for the ignition. In all it took nearly an hour and cost the driver about $6. I cant imagine what you would pay for a service like that in Australia.

   The next day Harry arrived from Australia. Harry was the one who originally introduced us to Sewa Ashram and Opportunity International and has a real passion for the Ashram and the project that we are here to support. The next morning we headed to the Ashram so we could meet with the Ashram international board members who were visiting from Germany. We spent 3 days at the ashram. Ray and Harry spent most of the time in some very fruitful meetings with the German Board Members and Ashram Team whilst the kids and I interacted with the patients. Ray built some great relationships with the German board members during their time together, and I believe that Ray and Harry were excited about the direction the meetings took. Sam once again had a great time hanging out with Renford installing a new toilet in the kids house, building a fence to divide the rabbit pens, collecting manure for the compost and replanting the lettuce. The rabbit breeding program is well underway now and they are breeding like rabbits do. Only two have been utilised for food at this stage, though I have to say there cant have been much meat on them.
  Hunter and I spent quite a bit of time at the kids house. Hunter would play with the kids while I would try to communicate with Roxhanna, who is one of the more chatty patients though she doesn't speak a word of English. I have learnt quite a few new words through hanging out with her. I should mention that the kids and I are working our way through the Hindi alphabet and are able to read a few signs here, especially when they are English words spelled out in the Devanagari script. The beauty of Hindi is that it is a truly phonetic language. Unlike English where spelling a word out phonetically only works some of the time.
  One dampener on this time at the ashram was the noise pollution produced by the nearby Sikh Gudwara (temple). They had some kind of month long festival going on which meant that they had a speaker blaring out their chanting  for around 20 hours a day, apparently last year it was 24 hours per day, at least this year there was a  few hours reprieve. The thing that seems a bit silly though is that they are speaking Punjabi, but the language spoken in the surrounding neighbourhood is Hindi... so really its just noise that nobody understands. Unfortunately there does seem to be some correlation between the chanting and the number of seizures in the kids house.
  As we were preparing to leave the ashram on Saturday afternoon, Lenka- one of the German volunteers- asked me into the clinic to check if I knew if a medication was suitable for one of the patients whose condition was suddenly declining with breathing difficulties. Ramesh was about 21 years old and had suffered TB which had severely compromised his lungs. He had finished his TB medication and had some periods of improved health but he would never make a full recovery. The doctor had checked Ramesh the day before and had changed his medications but in the meantime he must have picked up a virus because during Saturday his condition was deteriorating. The nurse had gone home so it was up to the volunteers. I had identified the medication as ventolin and atrovent which was given. Ramesh was very sweaty and congested and his heart was racing. He seemed afraid and he did not want to take all the ventolin, though it was enough to boost his oxygen saturation a little and help his breathing but the mucous congestion was still a problem. I had seen Sam in a similar position many times before so I really thought Ramesh would be OK especially if it was managed. I said to Lenka before we left watch him tonight as that is the time that it is likely to get worse. That is exactly what happened. Apparently Ramesh died during the night. I really thought he would be OK.  I had seen Sam pull through a similar situation many times, but what I failed to realise was that Sam has a stronger constitution and greater vitality, whereas Ramesh was weak and seemed to have lost his will to live. It was a sobering realisation and reality. 

   After we left the ashram we took Harry to Dilli Haat which is a lovely outdoor market that sells handicrafts from all over India. Harry was looking for a gift for his wife Zelda so we had a look at all the different stoles and pashminas available. I had never really looked into pashminas before in terms of quality, but I was aware that a real 100% pashmina was very expensive. It was really interesting to compare the differing qualities and mixes available. Of course the prices varied immensely. At one market stall the proprietor said to us in very hushed tones that a particular pashmina he was showing us was called a shahtoosh. We were a bit confused by his hushed tones but he explained that is was an illegal product. Even before he quoted a price of $600 we thought we would give it a miss. When we got home we looked up what a Shahtoosh was, apparently it is a pashmina made from the down fur of a Chiru which is an endangered Tibetan wild antelope. The only way to sheer the fur is to first kill the antelope. 
  Other fun purchases from the markets that night included a henna tattoo for Hunter, some $6 shoes made from camel leather and some colourful Indian bangles.
  The next morning Harry was due to return to Sydney. Before he left we stopped at a coffee shop on the way to the airport and told the driver to be back at 11.30am. By 11.50 he still hadn't showed up so we made a few frantic calls. Eventually at noon he showed up looking very bleary eyed as though he had just woken up... Ray blasted him.
We spent the rest of the day at the shopping mall. The kids did the trampoline bungee thingy, we hung out in the bookstore and had a cheap buffet lunch. We had planned to watch Australia at the cinema but as I was in line to buy tickets it sold out! I was a little surprised as Indian entertainment programs called it a box office flop. As it was earlier in the day we were approached by an Australian woman who introduced herself as a woman from the church we had attended once before... she had never met us before but there are not many white families wandering about so she guessed it was us. Jackie and her family have lived in India for several years. They have 3 kids around the same age as ours. She was most welcoming and suggested we meet up so we can have a chat about living in India and let the kids have a play. So seeing as the movie was sold out we decided to go to church. The evening service is a vibrant bilingual service. I have to say I really enjoyed it, the music was great and the kids had a great time playing with the other kids. Once again we were reminded of what a small world it is with Jackie and Craig knowing many people in Australia we also know and moving in similar circles.

I still have so much to catch up on...especially about our time in Agra but I will save that for tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hello - Ray

Well hello all. I trust that you have all been enjoying Lou's blog - I know I have! We are now half way into our time here in India. It has been an enjoyable, interesting, confronting and challenging time.

The project is progressing well. It has been an evolutionary process - one that has seen my pre-conceptions and ideas challenged, revolutionized and transformed - and the journey is not yet over!

We live on a planet that is so diverse, so amazing. When I first arrived in India, my first comment to Lou was the number of people. As we have travelled across India over the last number of weeks, the truth of my statement has really become apparent. India is growing by the size of the Australian population every year. The conservative forecast for the planet is 9 billion people by 2050 - that's a lot of people.

India also clearly showcases the disparity between those who have, and those who have not. When driving through the streets where we live, we pass the massive malls that house the top brand consumer goods. We pass the luxury high-rise apartments that house the people that have been fortunate to get on the ladder of economic development. We pass the slums that house thousands of families, that struggle to survive each day. We pass the pavement dwellers that have nothing, that simply exist to die. India is positioned to be one of the major contributors to global GDP, and yet 40% still live below the poverty line. India still houses a third of the global poor. As India, and some other countries in the developing world like China, converge with the developed world - and perhaps become the centre of gravity in world economies - the challenge is for those who are unable to get on the first rung of economic development. For them - and there are around 1 billion globally - the situation is only going to get worse. The gap is only going to get wider. The situation more dire.

Are the poor in India and the rest of the world a result of their own countries mismanagement? A result of countries turning their back on God? Perhaps the poor in the world are a result of the greed and gluttony of all those above them in the pyramid of global society. Those who find themselves at the 'bottom of the pyramid' perhaps are there as a result of ongoing oppression and exploitation. What part do we play in this oppression and exploitation?

There is currently a lot of global dialogue about climate change, and the sustainability of the current trajectory of human activity. We live on a planet with finite resources. We have a growing population, which is going to see larger conversion of the planet's resources for consumption. My thoughts here are not motivated by fear of running out of natural resources, nor climate change, however God has called us to be good stewards with what he has placed in our hands. Are we being responsible with the planet that He has placed in our hands? Are our current levels of consumption sustainable? What impact does my consumption have on my neighbor? If you have a chance - and I highly recommend that you do - have a look at

The thought that I am currently working through is: Are the poor in the world simply a symptom, and if so, what's the cause and how do I address the cause in order to have the greatest impact?

Am I currently living a life that causes a third of the world to live in poverty? What choices can I make that will begin to change the trajectory of human activity to one that is sustainable for all, and begins to bring back balance into our global society? Where opportunities and choices that are widely regarded as essential to leading long, healthy, creative lives, are available to all of society, who can then enjoy a decent standard of living, freedom and dignity, self esteem and the respect of others.

Jesus talks about those to whom much is given, much will be required. What's in my hand, and what can I utilize that will have the greatest impact in changing the circumstances for those who are at the 'bottom of the pyramid'? What do I have that will bring back social equity? Social fairness?

Choices. I have the freedom to choose, and with that freedom comes great responsibility. How will the choices I make today impact those around me?

Only when we begin to choose to adjust our lifestyles to truly reflect the conviction that individuals are not only capable of advancing human security, environmental stewardship and improved quality of life, but that it is our responsibility to do so, can we really begin to make a difference.

I believe we can. I believe that we are capable of changing the 'social climate' of our planet. I believe that we can see the poor lifted out of simply existing. I believe we can if we start to choose to do so.



Monday, January 12, 2009

Darjeeling- Sunderbans- Calcutta

  After enjoying a few more lazy days in Darjeeling it was time to move on. Late one afternoon we hopped in a 4WD for the long winding descent back down to sea level. It really is an amazing and precarious drive, there was never a dull moment. After a few wrong turns and about 3 hours we made it to the station. Our train was on time and was already at the station (we had been checking for delays all day after our last trip). The train was much newer and cleaner than the last train and was equally as comfortable. The only problem though was that we were not seated together. Sam and I were in 2A and Hunter and Ray were 5 carriages away in 3A; I was none to pleased about this after our last train journey. Sam and I settled into our cabin with 2 other Indian men. The train left promptly at 8pm and was due to arrive in Calcutta at 6am. After our tickets had been checked Ray and Hunter came to visit us and check that we were OK. We arranged to meet in their carriage at 5.30am so we could get off the train together. Unfortunately we did not have dinner before we hopped on the train and we failed to realise that meals would not be served on a red eye trip, so we had to make do with water and a couple of butterscotch lollies. Soon after the train was underway Sam settled into bed. The men in our carriage locked up there suitcases with chains and locks and went to bed. They both snored like foghorns. We stopped at a couple of stations during the night but overall the trip was fairly quiet; even so I was unable to sleep. I spent most of the night reading or trying to doze without much luck. Sam woke at 5 am and at 5.30 while everyone was still sleeping we trekked through the carriages to Ray and Hunter; they were both sound asleep. The train was a little delayed due to fog and we eventually arrived in Calcutta only an hour and a half late. As we hopped off the train we immediately noticed the change from cold Darjeeling. The air was thick and hot and we were still in our ski jackets. We made the long walk to the station entrance where we were confronted by numerous drivers wanting to know where we were from and where we were headed. We could not see our driver anywhere and by this stage we sweltering. As Ray went off to find our driver Hunter was feeling a little dizzy and the next thing I know there is sweet lassi everywhere. I think the heat and being overdressed stressed her body a little. Thankfully Ray had found the driver by this stage and we headed for the car to hopefully get some sleep!
  The car was a four wheel drive with a very loud horn! It soon became apparent that I was not going to get any much needed sleep on the 3 hour drive south to the Sunderbans. It was fortunate that we had been in India for sometime by this stage as this particular driver was crazy! Seriously the worst so far. I don't know if it was exhaustion but I was not too bothered by the near death experiences because I knew it would be least we got there quickly without actually killing anyone. I have to say though this guy left hornboy for dead, he should probably just buy a siren. I had to laugh though the horn did have a tone to it to suggest it was dying from overuse.
  So after several hours we arrived at a very large ashram in the Sunderbans. Sunderban literally means beautiful jungle and is a series of mangrove islands that lies at the mouth of the Ganges and is the home to the Bengal tiger.
  We were made very welcome at the ashram and were greeted by many of the staff and the Swami. I have to say from the moment we approached the ashram I had a strong sense of unease, initially I put it down to exhaustion. There was little time to rest on that first morning we first met with the Swami who explained the religious and other philosophies of the ashram and where given a tour of the temple. After the initial introduction the tour began, we visited the schools, food manufacturing and science laboratories. There was so much to take in but I felt like a walking zombie. After a delicious lunch of local seafood and delicacies we were given time to rest. Our room was modest but met our needs, we shared 2 very firm (read rock hard) single beds with much needed mosquito nets. The bathroom was simple with cold running water, bucket for a shower and a western/squat toilet in one. After crashing for a few hours we were up again. We went to visit many more of the ashrams training and manufacturing initiatives, they really do have an exceptional set up. Dinner was not until 8.30pm and I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. The food was great though; Sam and Ray particularly enjoyed it. After dinner we went straight to bed... oh sleep!
  The next day we woke early but I was still unable to shake the intense feeling of unease. Breakfast was great and included jalebi to dip in puffed rice. I have never seen Sam eat so much, his appetite seemed insatiable. 
  Our first stop for the day was another branch of the ashram further south into the Sunderbans. We had a tour around the school and facilities there. Hunter found the most interesting part were the enormous hay stacks of rice. I showed Hunter how to open the husk to expose the grain of rice. You forget that children brought up in cities don't always know where their food actually comes from. 
  I have to admit this unease that was with me quashed my sense of adventure. It was suggested we take a boat ride to one of the other islands but I gave Ray a very intent stare that said decline or you will die in your sleep - suffice to say no boat ride was had. I hate being such a party pooper but I was really very edgy.
Sam made one error on our tour. As we walked around the island the person pointed to a structure we came across by the water, I had an inkling it was a crematory and my suspicion was confirmed. Sam walked up to it and proceeded to stand on it to admire the view across the water with both the guide and I saying "no- get down" eek... uncomfortable.
  After lunch we headed back to the main ashram and the tour continued. We had some free time in the afternoon and I spent some time sorting out our luggage, as I was sorting it all out I soon realised the silver Tibetan jewelery I had bought in Darjeeling was missing. I checked and rechecked everything but it was not there. Ray was very unimpressed and I was worried he was going to make a fuss and start interrogating until he found the culprit. There was no lock on the door to our room so anyone could have been responsible. We asked the guy who bought us our tea if he had seen it but the language barrier was prohibitive. Soon we had everyone up in our room including the swami. We were very cautious about saying it had been stolen but rather misplaced. Needless to say the jewelry did not show up.
  The next morning we were to have breakfast before we headed back to Calcutta. Once again the food was piled on and Sam thankfully ate his share as well as much of mine. The swami joined us for breakfast and presented us with an array of gifts including a book and many religious icons. He even gave us a silver bracelet to replace the one that had gone missing.
  Overall the hospitality at the ashram was flawless and the knowledge gained from touring their facilities extremely valuable, though I was more than ready to move on.

  After being farewelled we hopped back into the 4WD for our hazardous drive back to Calcutta. Though we had left the ashram the unease that had been with me the past few days continued to plague me. I think it was because we where so far from home and we were in such a remote area where nobody spoke English that I felt completely out of control. Even though we had been off the beaten track in Kerala I did not feel the unease I felt in West Bengal and I have to put it down to the fact that I must be far more spiritually sensitive than I previously realised. About half way into the trip our driver picked up another passenger from a crowded village. We then headed even further into the wilderness down narrow roads and through thick jungle, I knew this was not the way we had come so the unease intensified. Ray saw this in me and began to question the driver and sought to reassure me that it was simply the back way - don't know how he figured that out! I don't think I have every prayed so fervently in all my life. We soon crossed a few train lines and came out of the jungle onto a more busy thoroughfare where our extra passenger alighted. Gradually the scenery began to change and the villages became more like towns and then we arrived into the city. By this stage the anticipation on arriving at the hotel was unbearable but the Calcutta traffic continued to impede out progress. After several sweltering, bumpy and noisy hours we pulled into the hotel drive way. I could not get into the lush air conditioned lobby fast enough. The sense of relief that the last couple of days was over was immense.
  Now personally I don't think I am too precious when it comes to roughing it for a few days, and really who can't survive a hard bed and cold showers for a few days. Also, I tend to find "nice" hotels overpriced and overrated. But as I walked in and was greeted with a cool wet washer I knew it was so worth it. We ended up booking the Taj as we had no lead on where to stay in Calcutta at a reasonable price so we called ahead and booked as we knew we could get a reasonable rate and not have to book two rooms for the four of us.
   In terms of service the hotel was seriously one of the best if not the best I have ever stayed at (I don't mean to sound pretentious but I have stayed at enough 5 star hotels to know what to expect). We were upgraded to a large suite where the four of us would be more comfortable. It was so great to sleep in a soft bed with even softer pillows and stand in the shower for 10 straight luxury. 
  Soon after settling in I checked my emails and there was a note from my co-author Kathy to say she had received a royalty cheque and we would be getting another in a few weeks...So I had no hesitation in allocating the money to our stay and a massage as well... aah money well spent!
 Oh quick plug... keep an eye out for our new book "completely lost for words" which should be in bookstores soon.

   Our first day was one of laziness and recovery. We had room service for both lunch and dinner and the kids enjoyed watching the TV and the discovery channel for the first time in 6 weeks (although we have a TV in our apartment I have never bothered to switch it on).
  The next day we thought we had better get out and about and try and tee up some appointments. In the morning we went to the new market as I had heard that Calcutta has the most beautiful fabrics in all of India. I have to say I had noticed that the Sari's and Salwaar Kameez worn by women in West Bengal were particularly vibrant and beautiful. But upon entering the indoor market we were immediately approached by a man insisting he could show us the best and he kept pestering me as to what I wanted to buy. He kept flashing some dodgy looking id insisting he was a government guide and every time he tried to lead us one way we immediately turned the other. After about 20 minutes he got the message and took off. The market in Calcutta certainly was not as laid back as Darjeeling and perhaps even more pushy than Delhi. The initial prices quoted where so inflated and unrealistic I could not even bother to start negotiating. I hate to sound completely negative but the I was over it... over the haggling, the pushiness and misrepresentation. We ended up buying Hunter a few colourful bangles and headed back to the sanctuary of the hotel.

  The next day we had organised to meet up with the wife of an Indian friend of a friend in Australia (does that make sense). Binu (the guy) was in Kerala and was due to arrive back in Calcutta just as we where leaving. So he kindly organised for his wife Deena to show us around some of their projects and initiatives. She picked us up with her driver in the afternoon and we headed off to visit a couple of the slums in which their team was active in providing education food and support. The two slums we visited were so different. The first was known as sick lane. I guess you would call it an organised slum in that it had a leader and there was a sense of community and the family structure was strong. We were introduced to the leader and shown around the community hall. The people living there were wary of us and were hesitant to interact.  We had chai with the slum leader which was served in tiny disposable clay pots which were discarded on the ground when empty. They seemed to nice to simply throw away and not reuse but I guess it is better than plastic.
  The second slum we visited was under a bridge/flyover. We were informed before we arrived that it was very different from the first in that there was no structure and the family unit was virtually non existent meaning that the kids would be more up front and perhaps a little uncouth (not that we could understand what they were saying). On alighting from the car we were immediately greeted by lots of excited children wanting to shake our hand and know what our names were. We carefully stepped our way with them through the garbage and under the bridge. I have to say if I was told that while in India I could choose between seeing the Taj Mahal or the slum under the bridge I would choose the slum... no competition. There is nothing better than seeing and understanding how a large part of the world lives. 
Unlike the sick lane slum where simple huts were constructed the bridge slum was all open plan living with only a few curtained off areas. There seemed to be a real mix of people under that bridge from the grubby outgoing children to the beautifully groomed and quiet natured women. One woman I met named Farita seemed completely out of place; she looked immaculate aside from the lice visible in her hair and she spoke enough English that we could manage to exchange names of her children and for her to invite Hunter and I to sit in her "house". There were very few men under the bridge and the one or two that were there were clearly under some chemical influence and some where visibly preparing a kind of drug. The family structure is virtually non existent under the bridge and many of the husbands are permanently  absent. 
Although there was garbage leading up to the bridge the actual space where the people lived seemed surprisingly orderly. There were even a couple of old posters of the Taj Mahal pasted to the pylons that held up the bridge. When it was time to leave we gingerly picked a path back through the tip/toilet and where fondly farewelled by all the children. I think they enjoyed the company and change of scenery as much as we did.
  After visiting the two slums Deena showed us a couple of the sites as she explained about the work her and her husband were doing in Calcutta rescuing women and children and trying to make a difference. They are really amazing people. They just go out there and do the work with no excuses as to why the task is too hard or too big; everyday they are making a difference in peoples lives.
  On our tourist jaunt of the city we took in the Howrah bridge which is one of the largest single span cantilever truss bridges in the world. It is constructed entirely of riveting without a single nut or bolt. From the bridge you get an amazing view of the Ganges and the hundreds of Hindu's bathing in the purifying holy water.
  We then headed to Mother Theresa's organisation. I have to say I really did not know what to expect but the first thing I noticed was what a prominent "tourist" attraction it is. I saw more white people there than my whole time in India. We headed in and took off our shoes and the first place we where lead was to Mother Theresa's tomb which is decorated in flowers spelling out a different message from day to day.  Next to the tomb a service of sorts was being conducted so we very quietly slipped out after signing the visitors book and receiving a miraculous medal like the one Mother Theresa handed out by the thousands. While we were there we looked through the museum and got an  understanding of how simple her life really was. All her earthly possessions were displayed in a small cabinet and you could see the white stitching on her clothes which had clearly been repaired numerous times. 
I am really glad we took the time to see the place where she lived and worked. It was an oasis in the city with a lovely peaceful ambiance.

  Deena then invited us to her home for tea; call me a sticky beak but I love going into homes in foreign countries. Her apartment was not unlike our own in Delhi in fact it was remarkably similar. Deena served us tea and the most delicious food. We learned about her family history and her arranged marriage. She gave us a book to read called One Act of Kindness which is a kind of Biography about Binu and Deena's extended family. I am about a quarter of the way through the book and I have to say it is an amazing read. The faith and the work that this family and The New India Church of God do in reaching people is nothing short of amazing.
It is unfortunate that we were unable to meet Binu and hear his perspectives and stories also but we are sure that our paths will cross at some stage.

The next morning we prepared to head back to Delhi. We had cancelled our train ticket for the 24 hour journey home and opted for a slightly more expensive 2 hour flight.... totally worth it.
Sam and Ray made the most of their last buffet breakfast with eggs, waffles and bacon. While I made the most of the baked yogurt and fruit... YUM.
   As we were checking out the room service guy presented us with lunch boxes for the trip home (in exchange for personal positive feedback- which he did deserve). He was a funny guy, always showing up with extra food which we did not order and refusing a tip, in the end all he insisted on was giving us very clear instructions on how to fill out the email feedback form and the spelling of his name. We will of course oblige - in fact happy to.
  So after a quiet and on time flight into Delhi we got through the airport in record time and were soon on our way home.
We are all looking forward to a couple of quiet days in our apartment to catch up on work and life before we head to the ashram on Friday...

I will upload some more photos soon
Keep in touch xx

Monday, January 5, 2009

Darjeeling 2

After several hours of delays and much adventure we finally made it to the enchanting city of Darjeeling.

Our drive back to New Delhi station was an interesting one. We had to make a stop for petrol on the way; our first encounter with an Indian petrol station. There was a queue to enter and then we all had to get out of the car while the driver filled up the car. After it was filled the driver moved away from the bowsers and allowed us to get back into the car. We have no idea why this is the way it is done I can only imagine it was for safety reasons. By this stage we had lost about 20 minutes. We had not been back on the road for long when the driver pulled up outside a temple, which we had seen a few times. He literally stoped abruptly in front of the entrance. Grabbed some beads from the rear view mirror and turned to face the entrance of the temple where you could clearly see the deity. He turned very solemn and sincere for several seconds as he said a prayer. Then as abruptly as we arrived he spun around and hit the accelerator. The traffic on the approach to the station was much busier now and we where beginning to run short on time. When we finally pulled into the bustling station we picked up our backpacks and headed for the platform. As per usual we were approached by several people wanting to know where we were going and on what train and were subsequently told every negative scenario about our impending journey. The stand out comment was that the trip would take 3 or 4 days. When we arrived at our platform after wading through a see of people our train was waiting. Indian trains are at least 2 if not three times longer than the average Sydney train and of course our carriage was one of the last. We found our carriage and boarded the train. We did not book first class but rather opted for 2A. This meant we had 2 bunks facing each other with a curtain that partitioned off our space. I wouldn’t have said it was clean but it was comfortable enough. Shortly before midday our 6.40am train was underway.

The journey was certainly an eye-opener. At every stop people boarded the train to sell their wares of Chai, snacks, books and clothing. The saddest was the young children not more than 6 or 7 years old that come through with bare feet and ragged clothes hoping to sweep out your cabin for a few rupees. People would stick their head in to our room for no reason whatsoever but to simply stare at the Goras (white people). At one station two of the unusually common hermaphrodites dressed in Saris entered out cabin singing and asking for money we insistently sent them away using the Hindi term nahi (No).
As we travelled we passed through varying landscapes and many small villages. There was a variety of agriculture from the ubiquitous rice paddies to canola and more. The train ride highlighted the copious number of people in India. It did not matter where we were or what time of day when you looked out of the window you could see at least one person and more than likely several animals. Train travel in India would have to be one of the best ways to see the country as you get a glimpse into peoples lives and the varying cultures and landscapes.
We bought our meals on the train. The food was cheap and tasted reasonable enough though variety was lacking. Every meal of the 4 we had on board was a yellow dhal and one other veg dish based on potatoes, chickpeas or cauliflower. Thankfully we had stocked up on snacks for our long journey to break up the monotony. Unfortunately if you eat and drink you inevitably need to frequent the bathroom. I tried to keep the visits to a minimum for two reasons
1. I didn’t like being watched; and
2. The bathrooms, though functional and not bad smelling, were not that clean.
There are two toilets available - a western toilet and a squat toilet. My initial choice was to use the squat toilet as you don’t have to touch anything. The toilet floor was wet with all manner of substance and of course there was no toilet paper which I had anticipated and brought my own as there was no was I was using my hand and the water available in the feral jug. The squat toile was basically a hole that allowed you to visualise the train tracks below and for that reason you were requested not to defecate at stations. Unfortunately Hunter had not used a squat toilet before and missed in her aim… so after that and due to the lightweight packing I had to abandon the squat toilet for the western toilet, which I wiped down with an antibacterial wet wipe before each use.
Before dark we were allocated blankets and pillows for out nights sleep. I don’t sleep well in new places on the first night at the best of times and on the train was no exception. At 2am after a few hours of restless sleep some instinct woke me and as I rolled over some movement caught my eye. As the realisation that a stranger was in our cabin struck me, Ray was woken by instinct also and his action was immediate; he immediately yelled at the man who had crawled into our cabin and was attempting to access our backpacks. Rays tone was rough and fierce and the man immediately scrambled form our cabin with Ray hot on his heels. The man disappeared into a nearby cabin and hid. The ruckus had woken the whole carriage and Ray then made sure under no uncertain terms that if anyone else dared pull a stunt like that he would beat the living daylights out of them… Though he wasn’t quite that polite but it assured that the rest of our trip was without incident.
Needless to say we were all wide awake then Hunter who got a bit of fright as she woke up a bit disoriented then hopped into bed with me. Ray insisted he would not sleep after that, although he was soon intermittently snoring in a series of catnaps.

By 9am it was clear that we where not going to arrive at our destination by 1.30. We called our hotel to let them know we would be an hour or two late and could they let their driver know. So the delays kept accumulating and we kept ourselves busy as best we could. I managed to polish off the last 500 pages of Shantaram, which I was pleased to have finally out of the way. So at 8.30 pm over 32 hours after boarding the train we finally arrived. The station was much the same as Delhi with a multitude of taxi drivers vying for our business. We soon found our driver and where ready for the 3-hour drive up the mountains to Darjeeling. I had planned to sleep but once the mountain precarious mountain ascent began sleep was the last thing on my mind. Our driver was a little unusual and was unusually excessively photosensitive to the headlights from the oncoming traffic (I should mention high beam is the norm for most cars at night), so much so that we virtually came to a standstill every time a car approached. Eventually as we began to climb and the roads became narrower, steeper and windier. The diver handled each obstacle with the proficiency gained from years of traversing the precarious roads. There were no barricades to prevent cars slipping off the side of the road and down a near vertical drop, we were quite thankful it was dark and we could not see the bottom of those drops. The winding roads meant a slow pace and after 3 hours and climbing to an altitude of 7000 feet we finally made it to our hotel and dropped into bed after being welcomed with much needed hot water bottles.

The hotel we stayed at was one that caught Ray’s eye on a website. It is owned by an English woman and her Tibetan husband. It is a small hotel with lovely atmosphere and character. The service has been wonderful with lots of homely touches such as the hot water bottles at night. When we booked the hotel we thought it would be OK as it was very cheaply priced but we have been blown away. Our rate includes accommodation transfers from the station 3 hours away and 2 meals per day. Our room is very nice and the beauty of Indian hotels is that they are happy to squeeze 4 people into one room so we don’t have to pay for two rooms. The only slight disappointment is the lack of hot water. I was hoping to finally be able to have a long hot shower but the small water heater allows for about 3-4 minutes depending on the pressure. Honestly though I cannot sing the praises of this hotel enough it is just lovely and so well priced.
On our first morning we decided to go for a walk to the nearby town centre. It was only a short walk to the local markets which lead to a big open square where many of the locals gather to sit and watch the world go by or catch up on local gossip. The square is also the starting point for a pony ride that takes in a loop around the top of this particular mountain and some spectacular views of snow capped mountains including Kangchendzonga the worlds 3rd highest peak.
I really don’t know how to express what a lovely city this is, the architecture is different from that found anywhere else in India and I cannot find the words to express the wonderful atmosphere. I think part of what makes it so wonderful is the people. Though it is still part of India I feel like I have crossed the border into Nepal. The people here look very different to those in Delhi and to those in the south of Kerala who have another look again. The Darjeeling people have very soft faces with a distinct Asian/Nepali appearance – very similar to Ray – in fact he has been asked whether he was Nepalese.
At the market stores, though there is room to negotiate, we often don’t bother as the initial prices they quote are very reasonable and the people so endearing. The things on offer are similar to those in the markets in Delhi though the stoles and scarves are warmer and there is an abundance of woollen socks and Tibetan hats. Did I mention it is freezing here? Though you can get warm in the sun I still could not remove my ski jacket, which I am so grateful that I packed.
On our first day in the market Sam made friends with a local boy whose mother owns a little market stall. The kids here all play a kind of hacky sack game with a ball type thing made from rubber bands. We have met him every day since as we have wandered about and each day we stop so they can play.
After a morning of wandering through the markets and taking in the amazing views that come with such a high altitude we decided to escape the cold with lunch at a small vegetarian restaurant. The food was great and we sampled the favourite local dish of chilli potatoes. It was also the first time since we arrived in India that we had lassi… why we waited so long I don’t know, although I have enjoyed lassis in Australia they do not compare with those in India. Another thing I love about India is how cheap the food and drink is. I am making the most of $1 freshly squeezed juices, lassi’s and hot chocolates made with the creamiest milk.
Darjeeling being so close to Tibet also has several Tibetan restaurants, which serve Tibetan momos, a kind of steamed or fried dumpling served with a fiery chilli sauce. Along with the lassis they have become a daily fare since our arrival in Darjeeling.

On our second morning we rose at 4.30am to make an early morning trip to tiger hill which is a neighbouring mountain with views all the way to Mount Everest. We had not planned to make the trip on our second morning but the night before we met some Australians at the hotel restaurant; we shared stories about our time in India including anecdotes of our experience on Indian trains. They thankfully mentioned that it was going to be a clear day the next day and then the next few days would be overcast. So we brought our trip to tiger hill forward and in hindsight it was defiantly the right thing to do. As we climbed to a higher altitude the temperature dropped to below freezing with a thick frost over the trees and the Tibetan prayer flags that zig zag between the trees were frozen solid. When we stopped to buy tickets Ray was asked if we wanted super deluxe, deluxe or general. We asked for super deluxe as it was still cheap and where consequently informed they were sold out… why offer them then. So we went for deluxe instead which we were told had heating. We walked up the hill and found out viewing area, which was a crowded freezing room with a little bar heater. We could not get anywhere near the windows and where not going to see a thing. So we headed back down to the unheated general area, which had an indoor and outdoor area. Hunter’s feet where freezing so Ray sat inside with her until I gave the signal that the sun was rising. There were several hundred people up on the mountain that morning and the atmosphere was great. There was a great cheer as the sun began to rise over the horizon and cast first light over the mountain ranges. Kangchendzonga was 52 kilometres away as the crow flies and was a spectacular sight. As it was such a clear morning we where able to glimpse the summit of Everest some 150 kilometres away. Not nearly as spectacular as Kangchendzonga but exciting none the less. After the sun had risen we headed back down the mountain and stopped at an icy field- another popular viewing spot. Hunter achieved a kind of celebrity status while there with 50+ people wanting their photo taken with her…we could have made some serious rupees. After taking our own family pics we made a quick get away in the car.
After a few more stops at a Buddhist temple and another viewing area we went back to the hotel to defrost with some tea and a hot breakfast.
As I sit here in the breakfast room at the hotel a few days latter some English tourists we met yesterday have just arrived back from tiger hill. The weather today is not clear. Although the sunrise was still spectacular much of the mountains was obscured by cloud and fog. We are so relieved we made the decision to go when we did; we had the perfect day.

We went on a tour of Darjeeling a few days ago, which took in most of the sites around Darjeeling. It started out with a few temples, which really are not our thing. We then went to a small gallery called the Ava gallery, which houses the works of the artist Ava Devi. Her works were incredible; she worked with silk thread on black cotton to create the most intricate work. Each of her pieces captured shadowed portraits of the Darjeeling and Nepalese people. She also worked with watercolours on black cloth with an equally impressive eye for detail. Before she died her pieces where for sale for as little as $60 for art that would have taken hundreds of hours.
We also visited the Darjeeling zoo and the Himalayan mountaineering institute, which housed the Mount Everest museum. It was fascinating seeing the equipment used by Tenzing Norgey on his ascent to the summit of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and reading about the history of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute one of Tensing Norgeys favourite haunts and where he was eventually laid to rest. After visiting the institute we went to Tenzing rock, which is one of the rocks used by the institute in their mountaineering courses. Ray and the kids climbed the rock with a guide whose fingertips were blackened by frostbite from his trek to Everest base camp.
The tour of course took on one of Darjeeling’s 180+ tea gardens. We sipped on local teas while taking in an amazing view of the terraced tea plantations. The garbage problem is the same in Darjeeling as the rest of India. On finishing our tea we looked for a bin to throw our cups in to find there were none. We were simply told to chuck them on the ground with the rest of the litter that covered the ground. It is an odd place Darjeeling where plastic bags are banned in shops to help keep the mountains clean but any other sort of plastic garbage litters the countryside. At the tea garden once again Hunters presence was requested in photos, which she was not so keen on so from now on she wants her blond hair tied back and hidden.

Of course while in Darjeeling one must make the time to become educated about tea and to sample the many varieties. So on Sunday morning we went to a tea “bar” and tried many varieties including teas that retail in the US for more than $300 per kilo.
We must have sampled 12 or more teas from the Castleton first flush to a very high quality Assam and many others of differing flavours and qualities. It has certainly given me a new appreciation for tea but I am still not a convert to tea drinking. Sunday is a relatively quiet day in Darjeeling and it was nice just to spend some time wandering around town and relaxing.

Well that about brings things up to date. Sorry for the long-winded post of some 3000+ words. I realise this blog has been very much based on our experience and not so much on our work. I have been hassling Ray to finish one of his half written posts and publish it to give some insight in the work we are doing…

Until next time, know that no matter how bad things get there is always someone who is worse off than you..

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Just a quick update... we made it safely to Darjeeling though our 24 hour train ride turned into 32 hours! Needless to say it was a real eye opener for the kids... I will have to fill in the details at a latter time as I am at an internet cafe at the mo and don't have time for a full update.
I will say however the trip was totally worth it. Darjeeling is amazing... This morning we watched the sun rise and light up the Himalayas including Mount Everest. We were very fortunate to have such a clear but freezing day.

Hope you all had a great New Year though I doubt it was as eventful as ours...

Keep in touch!