THE INDIA FILES – Traveling epic – April 07

Thanks so much for all your wonderful messages since the last update – I love to hear what you’re up to! Some of you will have read parts of this update, since an unfinished version was accidentally sent to everyone. It was unfinished, and included a lot of raw things that were not worded correctly at all and that needed time to be put into something balanced. I’m deeply sorry for any concern or offense that update caused. Please know that these were just initial ramblings, and I do not believe some of the extreme things that came across in such a badly worded email.CAUTION; THIS BLOG IS NOT WRITTEN TO CHILDREN. THERE ARE SOME THINGS WHICH YOU MAY NOT CHOOSE TO SHARE WITH UNDER 18S, PLEASE EDIT FIRST. THANK YOUSo…we have finnished our travels…and what an amazing, interesting, educational experience it has been! I’m going to get the unpleasant part of this over with now… The next place we went to after the last update was Jaisalmer. I thought Jaisalmer was beautiful and historically and geographically interesting, but sadly tourism seems to have ruined it. We were bombarded with touts before we’d even got off the train and ended up staying in a hotel that wasn’t recommended by the lonely planet because it was cheap. This turned out to be a really bad idea as later on in the afternoon, we had another bad experience with an Indian man. I had been feeling really ill (theres something unusual for India! haha) so we were back in our hotel room, with the door open because Rajastan is HOT. I woke up to find Katie and Mungo talking to the hotel manager, who had edged his way into the room, and was now at the end of the bed. He was stoned and without going into too much detail, started to pleasure himself in front of us. I screamed at him to get out and shouted about how it wasn’t acceptable and he just about jumped out of the room. The door was locked behind him but unfortunately poor Mungo didn’t really understand what was going on and answered the man’s pleas to open the door so he could ‘talk’, with doing just that. I didn’t appreciate quite how stoned he was until this point. We packed up and got out the room as fast as possible. I phoned another hotel from the Lonely Planet and they picked us up from the bad hotel, which was really good of them. If anyone (female) is thinking of traveling in India, I’d urge you to seriously consider taking a guy with you – it makes you feel a lot safer and lets you avoid a lot of hassel. However, this isn’t fail proof, as this incident shows, since Mungo (a 17 year old guy) being in the room didn’t appear to make any difference! It is very difficult to talk to an Indian about anything remotely to do with sex, so and so phoning Bharavi later on didn’t really help much, but laura (our PT desk officer) and lots of other people who have been through similar experiences have emailed some really good advice! (Thank you!) However, Bharavi did advise us to go to the police in Vijayawada, with him, if that was what we wanted to do, as the police would likely hassle us if we went in Rajastan. This is because of the corruption among the police force and the politicians in India. There are a lot of really really nice, friendly, genuine people in India, but unfortunately there are some misguided people too, and we were incredibly unfortunate! This kind of thing happens in every country, but there is a cultural reason for it in this case, and so I’ve decided that it’s important to talk about it here. This is the 4th time a similar circumstance has happened to Katie and I in India, and then theres all the gropings and comments… At first, I wasn’t particularly affected by it, my mum’s cautions of “all men are bastards” (meaning “be careful”, as if you think they are, you’ll watch out) prepared me to think “oh well, thats life” but this time I think it had happened one too many times and it really freaked me out. I started to feel really unsafe and vulnerable. Even walking down the street I was terrified of being within arms reach of a man, and there are lots more men on the streets than women, and they’re often narrow streets. It was horrible – an experience like this leaves you feeling like every man in a perve. Before, if i was sufficiently covered up, I wouldn’t mind going out without my chuni (scarf) on, but now I feel naked without it! I think this is good though; it has made me more culturally aware. You also start to blame yourself, but this is ridiculous; we do everything to avoid this (our door isn’t usually open! And we’re a lot more careful now… I got to the stage at one point where I wouldn’t even open the door if Katie wasn’t there…I think I was neurotic!) These things happen because of the terrible image many Indians have of “westerners”, and this is perhaps because of a number of reasons. In Jaipur, I was completely amazed to see a European woman wearing what I can only describe as a black bra with a bit of black lace over her navel and tight, ruffled, cropped trousers. Her hair was piled high on her head and to top of the whore look she was wearing bright red lipstick. She was walking round a palace and at first I thought she was doing a photo shoot, partly because of her attire and partly because, predictably, every Indian man asked to have a photo taken with her, to which she happily obliged, loving the attention! I find this amusing now, but at the time I nearly said something to her, (but sadly chickened out, feeling it wasn’t my place). She was with her partner and was likely staying in a 5 star hotel and traveling in a/c tourist coaches, and so I doubt she ever got any hassle during her short holiday in India. However, tourists like her re-inforce this image of western women, and so some men behave inappropriately when they have the chance. It annoys me that we have to be so careful and yet despite that still get hassle, largely because of the ignorant behavior of others. On the other hand, I have come to learn that a lot of this image of western women comes from the ‘blue’ or porn movies, most of which are made with western actors. These women are often in need of money, and so it is not as black and white as just blaming other people. These are just reasons that explain where this false image has come form. (So apparently, its Miss. Hilton I have to thank! hehe) Unfortunately, we are traveling as 2 young girls, and on a budget, so staying in very cheap places, and so we don’t have the protection that lady had. We do however, dress conservatively. I almost always wear Indian dress (and people love to tell me that I look like an Indian, or have developed the mannerisms of an Indian girl, which is really sweet!) and I am careful to wear dark glasses and try not to even make eye contact with men, never mind talk to them! (I sound like I’ve become a nun, haha). I imagine this sounds very dramatic, like I’m developing a problem with men? Let me explain. Most Indian women are very shy towards men. The majority of marriages are arranged and it is not appropriate for a boy and a girl to socialize with each other. A girl will not look a guy in the eye, never mind talk to them. So sometimes, the English way of making eye-contact with someone and smiling in a friendly way can be received in completely the wrong way! I’ve found this behavior very difficult to change, because I quite like smiling, and I didn’t realise how much I did it! (Isn’t that nice? haha) At first I learnt some bad words in Hindi, the idea being that this would be strong enough to show that this was not acceptable. However, the Indian friend I talked to about this thought that this would only heighten the ‘bad girl’ image, as only city women would ever use these words, and only in extreme circumstances. So I have learnt something much more useful, and more in line with Indian culture;’tum hare ma, bhen, kay kahro?’ which means ‘would you do that to your mother or sister?’ This isn’t offensive but will, apparently, work…so I like that better!I would like to mention, however, that I do not think that all men are perves, (or what my mother informed me I should think!- she was only joking!) As I said, we have been really unfortunate in these incidents; talking to the other volunteers and other travelers, while some have had some minor incidents, none have had anything as serious as we seem to have had. Please don’t let this put you off coming to India. Let it advise you, and take the right precautions, but you are safe in India, because these things are so taboo, and because older people tend to see it as their duty to look out for you. India is an amazing country and I have found the people so friendly and kind. Also, because of the thinking behind these incidents, these things have been applicable to Indian men, however, I love Indians and have nothing against them (please don’t think I’m racist!). There are, sadly, people who do these sorts of things all over the world. I have thought a lot about whether to include these incidents in my updates, but I have always tried to give an honest, ‘real’ account of our experiences in India, and this has been a major thing in my life learning curve, and so I have felt it important to include it, along with the good. This isn’t going out to children however, and I leave it to your judgment how you edit my words, should you want to share it with others.Moving on… consequently, we didn’t really enjoy Jaisalmer. It is the Golden City, as it is all sandstone, and so really looks golden! Mungo left for the the UK, via Delhi and Calcutta on the 22nd April and then we went on a camel safari in the Thar desert. We were supposed to be going on a day and a half’s safari, sleeping out in the desert, but there was a sandstorm the night before (very exciting, the power went – as it does in India if theres a little bit of weather! – and the whole city was plunged into darkness. The next morning, the neighbors were out banging the sand out of their rugs and sweeping their porches) and the other 2 westerners who were supposed to be coming with us decided to postpone. So, after our recent incident, Katie and I thought it wise not to put ourselves into the middle of the desert, overnight, with 2 men we didn’t know, on our own, and so we went on a short safari in the afternoon, with a French man and his 7 year old daughter. This little girl was amazing; at the age of 7 she has traveled most of South Asia and some of Africa, as well as Europe. I imagine she’ll have a very interesting outlook on life by the time she’s an adult! This trip was just a short tourist taster kind of thing, but it was interesting to see the villages in the desert and the desert in itself was very interesting, and beautiful. Most of it is wilderness/scrub land like Gujarat, but then huge, beautiful sand dunes rise up out of nowhere. My camel was called Manju and was the youngest at 7 years old. Camels live for up to 30 years. We watched sunset and then headed back. The way back was also very interesting as another sandstorm started. The lightening was almost constant and we were driving straight towards it. We were in an old, open jeep and so the rain (coming down in sheets) came in and the canvas roof began to leak. It was exciting. Haha. Rain is always exciting in India! The next day we left Jaisalmer, and we were glad to be moving on. In Jaipur my feelings of being unsafe around men began to lessen and by the time we reached Delhi I was back to normal. Jaipur is touristy, but not to the same extent as Jaisalmer. It is the red city, because the main architecture, particularly in the old city within the fort walls, is made of red sandstone. Rajastani architecture is beautiful! It is what you think of when you think of Indian architecture. There are lots of windows made out of small holes, set in a pattern, to allow the women to look out, but to stop other people from seeing them. Maharajahs (like local kings), used to travel in Palanquins, which were either carried by 4 men or an elephant. The women would travel in a covered Palanquin (it must have been very hot!) while the men’s would be open.Something that strikes me about Moghul architecture is that it is a huge shame the most amazing buildings are not lived in; they are tombs. We saw some amazing white marble tombs, set in locations with beautiful views. The carving is intricate and amazing. Of course it must have been nice to have a place like that to mourn your dead, but I just couldn’t help thinking “how cool would it be to live here!” (minus the dead body..) The Taj Mahal is the greatest example of this – more in a bit…So…we didn’t spend long in Jaipur, and we didn’t need long, we saw everything we wanted to see in the first day and then went and watched a typical Hindi movie! It’s caption was ‘a story from engagement to marriage’ – I don’t think I need to say much more… It was all the Indian ideal; rich people, an arranged marriage where they also happen to fall in love with each other at first sight…lots of emotion, and loads of melodrama (the heroine’s house burns down and she gets 3rd degree burns and nearly dies saving her half sister, earning her respect with her Cinderella-style step mother). It was just what we needed though to just stop thinking for a bit, since we don’t see TV or films very often! The cinema itself could be a tourist attraction! It looks like a Disneyland palace from outside (its baby pink, with turrets) and inside it looks like a bad, Disney-stylee interpretation of an 18th century British ballroom. I risked taking a picture and suddenly lots of security guards jumped out of nowhere. It was worth it… The next day we found a nice cafe, where we chilled out until it was time to go for our train. I called my mum too, even though its ludicrously expensive, but it was nice to talk to her, since I hardly ever call home.So then we got a day train to Delhi…and got an introduction to North Indian trains… Southern Indians are very chilled out, and their timings are laid back too; everything happens 2 hours later. In the North, life has a faster pace. But apparently no-one told the railways that, so southern trains are usually pretty punctual, but in the north they’re hours late! So eventually we arrived in Delhi, at the wrong station, 2 hours late. Rahul, Akhil’s cousin (we stayed with Akhil, a couchsurfer, in Mumbai) met us there with his friends and a car and we had a really great time staying with him in Delhi. We stayed about a week in Delhi, and saw the tourist sights; the red fort, Connaught Place (the main centre of Delhi, which is comprised of 2 ring roads and lots of cool shops, like People Tree, and the great ‘Char Bar’, great if you think you know something about tea(!) if you ever go to Delhi!), more Moghul tombs and the India gate, which is a memorial to the Indian soldiers who died in the WW1 and WW2. And of course Parliament… While Bombay is the Bollywood capital of India, Delhi is, of course, the political capital. Rahul and his friends worked for various news channels and so we soon came to know that the press card holds a lot of power in Delhi. The media have power (and knowing a politician or two is power too) in Delhi, whereas anyone in Bollywood holds the power in Bombay. So, when 2 drunken policemen on motorbikes stopped us during our ‘Delhi by night’ drive, our friends pulled out their press cards and avoided a bribe (not that they were doing anything wrong, the police just wanted money…) And of course we took a day trip to Agra, home of the Agra Fort and one of the 7 wonders of the world: the Taj Mahal. I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about the whole ‘wonder of the world’ bit; I thought it would just be another nice little tourist attraction. It was amazing though. Its sheer size is impressive, and the work on it is so intricate and beautiful. It is carved with floral designs, with flowers inlaid with semi-precious stones. There are 2 buildings on either side to make it symmetrical and of course, the famous gardens leading up to it. It is even more beautiful because of its story. The guy built it out of love for his wife, who died giving birth to his 14th child (poor lass…) so it is supposed to be romantic. Anyway, I thought it was that beautiful before I learnt that most of it’s semi-precious stones have been looted – it must have been incredible originally! The down side was that we had to pay an extortionate ‘foreigner price’ of 750Rs, while the Indian nationals sauntered in for 25Rs. We have a letter from our Principal at Maris Stella, explaining that we are volunteers and so unpaid and so would they please let us in for the Indian price. (Foreigners living in India can pay the Indian price if they have a special card.) This does sometimes work, which is really nice. People show you respect because you’re not just a regular foreigner – Indians love it when you live or work in India! When the security guys see our Indian tickets, their faces light up and they look at you (after looking down during their regular routine of taking tickets and moving on to the next person) and ask things like ‘You are Indian?’ or ‘You live in India?’ Its nice.. We got a free 500ml bottle of water and shoe covers for our 750rs though… (a 1l bottle is 10rs…) yay… I won’t do my rant about foreigner prices or the rudeness or rasicm of it…enough said already. All I will say is, Indians, when you come to Britain, not only will we charge you no more than we charge ourselves, but we’ll even give you free health care and education for your children…how nice are we?And then we left Delhi. I’d like to go back to Delhi someday. It has an attraction similar to Mumbai, although it’s completely different. Delhi feels like a European City, especially New Delhi, which was designed (by a German). There are lots of green, open spaces, and the roads are wide and well maintained and have pavements(!), and so they can cope with Delhi’s traffic pretty well. By comparison, Mumbai’s roads are much too small for the traffic, and the city is built over a smaller area than Delhi, so there are far too many people for the amount of space, resulting in terrible congestion and pollution, but the public transport, on the other hand, is pretty good, better than Delhi’s – in Delhi you need a car.We stayed with Ashu (see later…), in Manali, and it has been interesting talking to him. He never went outside of Manali, never mind Himachal Pradesh, until he married a Canadian last month and she got him to go down to Delhi and Rajastan. Having never been to another Indian city, he thought Delhi was dirty and the exact opposite of what I’ve just described. So I guess my impression is only comparative to the other cities we’ve visited.After a great week in Delhi, Katie and I got on a train (or rather sat on a dirty platform for hours and then got on a train… getting pretty used to that…hehe…gotta love India!) and woke up the next morning in Amritsar. On the train I didn’t get much sleep because there was a woman across from me with a baby who screamed and cried the whole way. In the morning, I was surprised when I saw the lady’s face; she looked like a child, yet she had a young child and a baby and a husband who looked much older. We stayed in Amritsar for less than 24hours, but we had a great time! We got a free bus from the station to the Golden Temple, which was Amritsar’s first plus, and an introduction to the feeling of being welcomed, that in my limited experience, seems to accompany Sikhs. (There has been riots all over the TV right recently in Amritsar because of outrage over one guru’s actions, but towards us, they were very friendly, and peaceful, and generous.) As we got off the bus, it started to rain, that same magical downpour I keep going on about. We ran with the rest of the crowd into the entrance of the Golden Temple dormitory accommodation… and then I turned around and saw one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in India; lots of moving colorful turbans connected to people running in bare feet, some carrying small children, amongst the sheets of rain, with the stunning Golden Temple in the background. When the rain lessened, we all started to disperse, as if we’d never all been crammed into the same tiny area together, and Katie and I left our shoes with the shoe keepers (also free…it really does give you a much nicer impression). I had my chuni, but Katie donned a brightly coloured rag to cover her head. Pictures later…hehe.I don’t know why the Golden Temple hasn’t joined the Taj Mahal as one of the wonders of the world, and some of the other volunteers have said that too; it’s equally impressive. The temple itself, is surrounded by a huge pond with giant koi in it. There are women washing dishes at all the four corners of the covered area that surrounds it, and at the centre, theres the Golden Temple, with it’s solid gold roof and intricately decorated walls. We were allowed in all the way, and inside found musicians, surrounded by worshipers. There are 3 floors, all of which look down onto the musicians, and are lined with people reading various texts.On our way out, following clockwise with the other visitors and worshipers, we sat in a big hall on hessian sacks and ate chappathis and dahl. You held your hands out to receive the chapathis; it was all really respectful and peaceful. We were so impressed we left a donation.After this, we went to the Jallianbagh park, where in 1919, a British officer ordered his men to open fire on 20,000 peaceful protesters. They were protesting against a new British law that allowed Indians to be imprisoned without trial. 2000 people died (the official number is 364). 120 people jumped into a well, committing suicide, to escape the bullets. I actually felt ashamed to be British. Katie and I stayed here for a bit, and I slept on the grass (grass is so amazing!). Then we met Sachin, a couchsufer (after squeezing off a really packed bus!). We stayed with him and his family, who were absolutely lovely. Sachin and his young wife are hoping to move to Australia soon for 3 years while his wife does a health course. She’s a Reiki master! Sachin’s brother is now an air-host, but until recently was a model. As usual, we were shown the family photos, which included his portfolio (with him wearing nothing more than a bag in some) it was slightly strange…not exactly the sort of pictures you show people you’ve just met! It was interesting to experience how the culture is evolving under western/modern influence though. They were quite a wealthy family and at dinner we were presented with lots of dishes and things. I’d never come across Indian etiquette like this – I hadn’t a clue what to do – they must have thought we were complete slobs! We went with Sachin to the Border Closing Ceremony, at the Indo-Pakastani border (it’s not a dangerous border, don’t worry!). It was really interesting. The Pakistani side had much fewer people and was interesting to see, in comparison to the Indian side; there were separate stands for men and women, and the womens stands were just a sea of black. They seemed to be much more reserved in their cheering as well. On the Indian side however, people seemed to be genuinely having a lot of fun, more fun than I’d seen at any of the weddings in Vijayawada. People ran up to the border gates with Indian flags and shouted ‘Bharat Mataji’ (Long live the Mother Land) with the answer ‘Jai’ and ‘Hindustan Zinzabad’ (Victory to India). The actual ceremony was a great display of macho melodrama, with lots of stomping around and walking up to the gates, before the flags were lowered on both sides at exactly the same time, symbolizing respect and truce.The next morning we got up very early for a 5am train (Sachin very kindly drove us) and then discovered that we may as well have stayed in bed for another 2 hours… However, eventually we reached Pathancot (pronounced ‘Patankowt’) and got a bus for Mcleod Ganj, in Himachal Pradesh, via Dharamsala.Himachal Pradesh is beautiful! Mcleod Ganj is a lovely place – I really enjoyed our time there. It is full of western tourists, and mainly hippies searching for ‘something’ spiritually, meeting Buddhist gurus, and meditating with the help of the beautiful, peaceful mountains. However, it is also the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. My initial thoughts (and generalizations) of Tibetan people, from our experiences in October, were strengthened; I find Tibetans very kind, friendly, open and peaceful people, and this despite everything they’ve been through. As a result, Mcleod Ganj doesn’t feel ruined by tourism. Tourism is certainly the main industry, but there is not the same pushy attitude that we found in places like Rajastan. I learnt a lot about Tibet too, which was extremely interesting. We had a really great day on the Sunday. We got up early and walked just outside the town to the old British church and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Reverend had allowed a group of Swedish students, who were staying, studying and volunteering in the area, to pretty much take over the English service. Consequently, worship involved lots of modern songs that I knew, and one guy with a guitar. The students spoke and shared their testimonies, and it was great to talk to them afterwards. It was exactly what I needed after 2months of having not been able to go to a church. It really reaffirmed my faith for me, as I realized that, surrounded by so many religions and spiritual theories, I knew that I have found something true and amazing. I do serve and know an awesome God and Father. Its just so wonderful to feel this way when so many people around you are searching for what they want to feel is ‘the right thing’, when I feel so strongly that I have no confusions in that respect, and that there is something that amazing!After church, we visited the Buddhist complex. We couldn’t see the main temple, because there was a meeting going on, and so what seemed like the whole Tibetan community and many visitors had gathered in front of it. So, we walked around the complex. Unfortunately, we didn’t realise where we were walking until we had gone too far to turn back; we were supposed to be walking clockwise. No-one said anything about us walking the wrong way (because Tibetans are just so unbelievably lovely), but it is a terrible thing to do and we felt awful. It was really interesting to see all the prayer flags and prayer wheels. The next day we visited the temples, and I decided to spin the prayer wheels. I decided, after much debate, that there was no harm in spinning them to the God that I know. Some of you might not agree with this, but it felt right and I feel at peace about it.

We also went to the Tibetan museum (if you ever go to Mcleod Ganj, definitely go here, its really interesting, shocking and eye-opening – so make sure you are not there only on a Monday). It has a great visual presentation of photographs and videos that explain the history of Tibet and the feelings of the Tibetan people. The Chinese destroyed more than 3/4 of their sacred temples, monasteries and monuments in their ‘Cultural Invasion’, and banned the Tibetans from following their religion. Eventually the Dalai Lama escaped over the Himalayan mountains and sought refuge in India. Many more followed, through the dangerous Himalayan mountains. Many got frostbite along the way and arrived in Nepal and India needing their toes/feet/legs amputating. I am in awe of the amazing attitude these people have, as I described earlier, despite the terrible treatment they’ve received. You could understand if they were a bitter, angry people, but they are the exact opposite.We also did quite a bit of walking. We walked to Bhagsu, and saw it’s waterfall. Some guys asked why we were not swimming and we said, ‘its difficult to swim in India, as a woman’ (sometimes I think it would be easier to be male!) Then we walked to Dharamcot. Another day we walked to the Dal lake, a sacred Hindu lake. No-one seemed to know why it was sacred, it just was! Sadly on the way back, one little thrill-seeker grabbed my chest and then ran off into the woods. I shouted lots of things after him but nothing obscene. I was completely covered from head to foot in Indian dress…perhaps this makes it worse? However, it was great to be somewhere so beautiful and with such a pleasant climate. On my first trip up to the roof of our guest house to hang washing, I actually gasped it was such an amazing view!So after about 3 days, Katie and I got on an overnight state bus to Manali. What an interesting trip…neither of us got any sleep! At first, it was mainly other westerners, and then it filled up with lots of other people – it got very crowded! I’m in awe of the Indian ability to stand on a crowded bus for so long!I have a lot of respect for bus drivers in India. They’re like ballet dancers; they just glide the bus round sharp bends, with great confidence against the sheer drop on one side of the narrow road. They glide to a stop…more drunken men get on and the swarming the mass of people standing nose-to-nose in every inch of the bus ripples to accommodate them, and then off the driver begins his dance again.In this way, we reached Manali at around 3.30am and sat around a burning tyre with a group of omelet stall wallahs and auto rickshaw wallahs hoping to make a fast buck out of unsuspecting tourists, taking them to a hotel where they get commission. One of Wynne’s friends (we worked with Wynne in Vijayawada, a wonderful, generous lady from Tynemouth) Ravi met us and we drove to his village just outside of Manali. We stayed there for 2 nights, seeing Manali and sorting out money and train tickets and boring things like that. We stayed in Ravi’s guest house, which was lovely, and really enjoyed it; there were amazing views and the village was a really peaceful place. Theres an Osho ashram there and it was interesting to talk to a couple who go there 6months out of the year. It was really interesting to meet Ravi’s family. Their house was interesting too. Himachal houses are a work of art, and built to withstand the cold, without needing central heating or anything. They are made with strong Teak wood, and a mixture of local mud and things and have wooden walls inside. They have lovely, pretty balconies and downstairs lives the family’s cow. Ravi’s house was a modern version, minus the cow. His family have a big apple orchard, a cash crop in India. Then we moved to Ravi’s brother-in-law, Meharu’s, village, where we stayed for the remainder of the 2 weeks we ended up staying in Manali, in his half-built house, with his brother Ashu. The village was wonderful! I’m really glad we had such a great experience – we’re so fortunate! The village was untouched by the western world. We had to be very careful not to go into anyone’s house, because there is a belief among the villagers that foreigners are Muslims. Also the caste system was still very prominent; if we ate with people from a lower caste, we wouldnt be able to eat with Meharu and his family. From the village, we could walk through a wood to Old Manali, a travelers hangout. This walk took about half an hour and we got lost quite a lot! Unfortunately, we made some timing errors a few times and ended up walking back in the dark – not a sensible idea! The 1st time, I prayed the whole way back that God wouldn’t allow it to get dark until we were back at the house. I felt at peace, knowing that God could do it, and I felt protected by Him, so I didn’t worry. The sun usually goes down around 7/7.30pm, that day we reached the house at 7.50pm and it was still light.We found a great cafe in Old Manali, with lovely staff, some from the USA, and great coffee and chocolate cookies! They told us that there was a church service on Sundays at the Mission Hospital. I went the Sunday before we left. It was really nice. The service was in English and in Hindi, with the sermon translated – this takes a lot of concentration! You have to tune into the English bits, but because I’ve been so used to just tuning out of talks I don’t understand (its the only way to get through hours of Telugu talks!) I kept tuning out for too long, and missing bits of the English! I’d also be trying to listen to the Hindi, in an attempt to learn more Hindi, and then I’d accidentally tune into the Hindi, and tune out of the English! Sounds easy doesn’t it? Just listen to everything…it’s really not that easy! It was fun though; in typical Indian style, we all sat on the floor, crammed into a tiny room, with some guys with a guitar and a cassio (no-one plays the piano or the keyboard in India: they play the cassio) with the men on the left, and the women on the right.We also met 2 really interesting Canadian Professors, also friends of Meharu’s. One of them had decided to hire a jeep (and a driver) for a day and go up the Rohtang Pass. We couldn’t afford this but he really kindly said that we could come along too anyway. He has done a lot of work in Russia and it was really interesting to hear about his experiences there, especially in comparison to India. We started very early, getting up at 5am. The road is only open in the summer, and goes all the way up to Leh in Ladakh (have a look on the map – go north from Himachal). To open it, they have to melt through several meters of snow, creating snow tunnels. We drove up the twisty windy roads and about 10am we reached the Pass. We saw some dangerous things, like a bus full of people crossing over an area where there was a blowout in the hillside directly underneath. The pass was interesting; the bridge has to be rebuilt every year, because the glaciers knock it down, and since the road had only been open for 3days, the bridge was yet to be built, so we watched buses and really overloaded jeeps driving through the river and trying to get up the bank on the other side. We have a great video of the jeep in front of us doing this. There was luggage piled on its roof, about the car’s height again, so it was just too heavy to get out of the water and up onto the bank. Then people start getting out of the jeep. Indians have an amazing ability to squeeze more people than can surely fit into a small container, while still obeying the Laws of Physics. One by one, more people got out, first the men, then the women, until the jeep eventually made it up. It was like Mary Poppins’ handbag. It was hilarious. Then we sailed across with only 4 people in our jeep. I think we all unconsciously held our breath as well.It was amazing to get up to the top though – just snow everywhere! Most of the Indian tourists from Delhi stayed at the Pass, where they had joy rides on ponies and went down small slopes on tyres. For most of them, it was their first time seeing snow, and they wore huge fake fur coats, which are for hire along the road up to Rohtang. Ashu and Meharu’s sister, Kowsalia, owns a shop like this. (She’s a brilliant woman – despite living in a very conservative village, she has decided that she doesn’t want to get married, and so her and a friend run this shop, allowing her to bring in money for her family, so that she is not a burden to them, unmarried.) Anyway, we hired our dreadful fake fur coats too. It was cold and it made for great pictures!We also went on a 4 day trek with Ashu, who works as an adventure sports person, organized by Meharu, who works in the tourist industry. It wasn’t very challenging and we finnished it in 3 days. It was great to walk through the nice, cool, Himalayan foothills – it was so beautiful!! We had ponies to carry our things, which made everything easier! Ashu also brought lots of cooking equipment and so we ate chappatis and veg curry, made from scratch, and omlettes and porridge and pasta…slightly different from our D of E (Duke of Edinburgh’s Award) expeditions with our ‘Pasta ‘n’ Sauce’ packets!When we finnished, Ravi met us in Kulu, and we all went white water rafting, which was fun. We got completely soaked. Katie accidentally wore the boots I’d bought for trekking too, so they got soaked too! oops.Since we’d done the trek quicker than expected, we decided to go on a day and a bit trek a few days later. This trek was much harder; a great challenge! We went up the Rohtang Pass and started walking at 3700m. It was all uphill and very steep the whole way. I was tired to start with and the altitude made it hard to breathe. It was like I just couldn’t get enough air into my lungs, or like my body wasn’t recognising the air I was breathing as air! I used to eat pretty healthily and go to the gym around 5 times a week before I came to India, but in India I haven’t been able to get very much exercise and I could count the number of meals I’ve had that haven’t been fried in a swimming pool of oil, with 2 hands…so Katie and I aren’t the fittest people in the world right now! Consequently, I found these 2 days a brilliant challenge, and physically very hard! Painfully, we reached 4300m and camped for the night. The 3 of us shared a 2 man tent, and it was very very cold, so we didn’t sleep too well! There was an amazing hail storm, that left the area covered with a layer of perfect, small, white balls of ice, all exactly the same size – nature is incredible! Ashu told us to come out of the tent and when we did I saw one of the most amazing, beautiful things I’ve ever seen. There, at 4300m the cloud had separated and formed a line, halfway down the mountains. I can’t describe it – it was just so, so beautiful! It was like views you see on the TV or on postcards, but it was right there in front of us! For about the millionth time in India, I was just like “look where we are”! Sometimes its hard to believe that we’re actually where we are, seeing something that most people in the world will never see!We also met a really interesting girl from Australia, who lives in London, also called Fiona! Our 2 groups walked up to a frozen lake the next day, walking up to 5000m. This was also very hard. We were sinking in snow up to our knees, sometimes up to our waists. I wasn’t really equipped for trekking, so I did this in a churida (thin baggy trousers,and a baggy cotton dress type top. I had no jacket, no waterproofs…and no boots. My boots had still been wet when we left, so I walked some of the way in my trainers, and when we got to the snow, I changed to small ankle high black wellies. When we sunk into the snow (just about every step) my wellies filled up with snow, soaking my feet and making them very cold. Sensible this, isn’t it? haha. By the time we reached the top, my feet were so cold they were really painful. I tried to dry my feet etc but the first step on the way back down soaked them again. My feet were starting to go numb, and realizing that this probably wasn’t great, I decided I needed to get down to the tent as soon as possible. Luckily, mad or fun-loving little me had decided that I’d be really fun if we took a carry mat to aid the way back down….My 1st attempt was a bit of a disaster. If you’ve ever tired to control a long, thin piece of carry mat on newly-fallen snow down a red or black level ski slope you’ll know what I mean…am I stupid or what? There was a group of school kids from Delhi snaking their way up the slope, but Ashu said it’d be fine, so off I went…I ended up off the carry mat, going sideways down the slope and eventually stopped at Ashu’s feet, in the middle of a group of very amused and curious school kids, on their first sight of snow. My next attempts were, thankfully, more successful, and did get me down faster, all-be-it with chilblains. Then I got dry trainers and stopped worrying that I was going to have a toe-less life…hahaIt was so beautiful up there. We took loads of pictures, but it just doesn’t even capture half of it. IT WAS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!!!Then I nearly went para gliding, but decided that I couldn’t afford it and it was really only a rubbish tourist thing.Then we slept!!!I made another mistake too. I folded my sunglasses up with the tent on one of the days of the 1st trek, so I couldn’t wear my sunglasses on the 5000m trek. At 5000m everything is covered in snow, so its completely white, and its India, so the sun still shines really strong. The result is a blinding sea of intense sunlight reflecting off white as far as you can see. So I came back with red eyes and they’ve watering and stinging and just going a bit weird. oops. Better get that checked out… silly girl. You live, you learn – it was worth it for the amazing experience!We met Alice, Buffy (who are working on the Suryapet project, 3 hours away from Vijayawada) and Hannah (on the Srikakalum project) on our last day in Manali, before they went on their trek. It was really great to meet up with them and hear about their experiences traveling! We haven’t seen Alice and Buffy for a long time because they’re not the greatest fans of Vijayawada, so it was great to see them! We also met a welcome addition to their group – Emily, who was on the Suryapet project last year! PT wouldn’t give her any of our details but in an amazing coincidence, the girls ended up sitting on her knee in a shared auto and got talking, and realized who they all were! Emily was a great girl to meet; really interesting and full of enthusiasm! It was interesting to hear about her experiences of going back to the UK after her year here in India.So…after a great stay in Manali, Katie and I finally decided we better leave, so we got another very early state bus down to Himachal’s capital of Shimla. This was another 11hour journey. There was nowhere to put our bags, so I had to put mine in front of me, and so sit cross-legged for 11hours. Thats a long time to sit in one position!Shimla was an interesting place. The population of Himachal is much smaller than other states, because of all the hills, it being in the Great Himalayan Range, so it doesn’t feel like a big Indian city. It was the summer home of the British Raj in India, and its where a lot of Delhi-ites escape to from the summer heat, so its effectively the Summer capital of India. It was a lovely, weird experience – the streets are like London’s cute little back streets, about 150-200 years ago. Its actually like a little London, plonked down in the middle of beautiful hills, with Indian buses and people flooding through it. I liked it. It was high season in Shimla and we realised a little too late that it was going to be very difficult to get a room, and almost impossible to get one in our budget. Couchsurfing to the rescue, we met Akhil, who met us at the bus station and took us to his friend’s hotel. This was way over our budget, but we only stayed 1 night. Then we moved to Akhil’s quest house in a lovely town called Tutu, about a 15minute crowded bus drive out of Shimla. This bus ride was lovely. Eventually a bus stopped and Katie, being the ‘sensible one’ said “We can’t fit on” but I being the, err.. stupider one(?) said ‘no, no, no it’ll be fine just get on…’ There were people hanging out of the door, but somehow we got on the bus, and as usual in lovely India, the other passengers “adjusted”. A space was created for us in an aisle of nose-to-nose people and not only that, a little voice from behind me said, “put your bag down”. What? Where? The little voice came again. So I can’t see, but I take my arms out the straps. My bag is really heavy. And then it becomes weightless, and I turn round and another space is created. The man behind me has taken my bag and put it on the floor, surely by some magic trick. Thats the kind of generosity you experience all the time in India. Its beautiful. Our room in Tutu was also lovely with a great view. It was interesting talking to Akhil and his brother. In contrast to Ashu’s family, Akhil’s family have done a lot of traveling in India.In Shimla, we saw the lovely English church and Hanuman’s temple, at the top of a really steep hill. The monkeys have been a problem here, attacking anyone with a bag that looks like it could carry food (clever things…) and stealing anything not held down. They’re really viscous things, monkeys. On our way to the station in Varanasi we were walking along a narrow street when a monkey dropped down from a tree and went for a man coming round the corner. The monkey’s teeth were out and its eyes were huge, and fixed on this man. He had probably just looked the monkey in the eye. The man ran, knocking me over, and I couldn’t get up in a hurry with my ridiculously heavy backpack on, so I’m very lucky the monkey didn’t take a dislike to me too, because there would have been nothing I could have done about it, and it was only about a meter away from me. Exciting stuff.One thing that amused me at the Hanuman Temple was a sign that said “Please keep this place neat and tidy. Cleanliness is the place where God lives”…no gods in India then…The rest of the time we just chilled out in Shimla, we walked around the town, and had coffee at the ‘Indian Coffee House’. We went to the Ritz cinema, which looked like a tattier version of the Moulin Rouge from the outside, but was really plush inside. We saw a Hindi movie called ‘Metro’, which was a complete rip off of ‘Love Actually’, but set in Mumbai. It was quite good though; instead of the usual song and dance cheese, the director answered the box office need to have at least 6 songs in the movie by having a band walking about the streets, where the actors were. I guess it was a sort of half-way point. More importantly, it was failing Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty’s first film since her publicity exploitation of Jade Goody.After less than 2days, we got an overnight semi-deluxe (!) state bus down to New Delhi, where we sat in the crowded waiting room at the train station for a day, before getting an a/c train to Varanasi. Interesting people watching in that waiting room. Interestingly, it had a unisex bathroom too.From here on our trains were booked at the last minute and so we started having problems. Forking out 4 times the price to travel a/c class solved our ticket problem on this journey. This was probably very lucky, as it is a route that is notorious for theft and inappropriate behavior towards women. A day later, Rosie, one of the Tamil Nadu volunteers traveled from Agra to Varanasi and had her bag stolen, losing her diary, which she’s been writing since October, money and other things.So then we arrived in Varanasi, knowing that all the trains east from Varanasi were so full that we couldn’t even buy waiting list tickets on any train for the next 2 weeks. We figured something would turn up.We met Hannah, Buffy and Alice at the hotel and left the next day, after a short reunion with Tasha and Rosie, who arrived the day after us. Varanasi is an interesting place. It is one of the most sacred places in India, because of the Ganges River. All along the river are ghats – bathing ghats, pooja ghats, and burning ghats. We went up to a derelict building and looked down onto the main ‘burning ghat’ and learnt more about Hinduism. The Ganges is sacred because Lord Shiva, the creation god, stepped in it or something. This means that the river has healing power. If a person dies and is dipped in the Ganges, then their wrongs will be washed away and they will go straight to ‘Moksha’ or Heaven. So, lots of people come to Varanasi to die. When they do, their body is wrapped in white, orange and gold cloths and carried through the streets to the burning ghat, by workers from the ‘untouchables’, the outcast caste, and followed by the male members of the family, who chant Krishna things. Upon reaching the ghat, the body is immersed in the Ganges, and then left to dry a little bit. Then, the procession stands around while the workers build up a fire around the body. The family then all congregate on a watching platform a little further off and the body is burned. This costs a lot of money so it is a big business. The body can be burned with low cost wood right the way up to expensive sandalwood. The workers are very skilled and know exactly how much wood is needed to burn a body. Actually, far from finding this whole process sacred, I found it very practical. The corpse was clearly visible, actually burning. People stood around, and even the cows, – who are everywhere in India – mooched between the burning piles, just a few feet away from the burning bodies. However, they say no-one cries in Varanasi; they know that they’re loved ones have gone straight to Moksha.Here, old ladies were begging, not for food – they had allowed themselves to die – but for money for the woodman.Under 16s are not burned, because they have not ‘seen the light’, and so are innocent. Instead, they are floated down the Ganges. As you might imagine, Varanasi is really dirty, and the Ganges is possibly the most filthy water I have ever seen in my life. Yet millions of Hindus come to Varanasi on pilgrimages, and our 5.30am (oh my gosh…don’t get me started – I am not a morning person!) boat trip showed us a sea of colourfully dressed people bathing and swimming in it! To you or I it seems impossible to believe that such dirty water could bring healing, but yet so many believe it. I never touched it – it was more likely to give me some terrible disease!Call me cynical, but I couldn’t help thinking that this could perhaps have been something the authorities invented centuries ago, in answer to a lot of very serious problems in India. It gets sick or diseased people to voluntarily leave the cities and their homes, from all over India, and all go to one place. Thus controlling outbreaks of contagious diseases. Also, cremation is important in a hot country, where there are so many people. Interestingly, lepers cannot be burned. In addition, it brings peace to bereaved families, and provides hope for the dying, the terminally ill, or diseased. Many old people, who have no families, come to Varanasi and allow themselves to die. This in a country with no social welfare system.Perhaps I am being cynical, either way the system works, even if I find it sort of horrifying myself, coming form the culture that I was brought up in.So, after our very early boat trip, Katie and I went to the train station, where Katie stood in one of the huge queues in the Unreserved Reservation Hall (yes..hall, not queue). This was an entire hall, the size of a school assembly hall, where every line went to the back of the hall, and all passengers wanted unreserved tickets for that day’s trains. It was unbelievable. However, amazingly, they actually queued! While Katie settled into the queue, I went off looking for another way of getting to Darjeeling. A really helpful guy found me (I’d say I found him, only he really found me, I must have looked lost – Indians are really very kind and helpful!) and told me what I could do, and then I found the tourist information bureau, where another really kind guy helped me out. He looked through every option and got us a/c tickets for the same train as Alice, Buffy and Hannah were traveling on that afternoon. To cut a long story short, we were very lucky to have friends traveling that route, because otherwise we would have been stranded in Varanasi. You are not really allowed to be on an a/c carriage with unconfirmed tickets, but because we were young white girls, and we had 3 friends with confirmed tickets, the conductor overlooked it. So we topped and tailed on the little narrow berths and got to New Jalpaiguri, in West Bengal.At New Jalpaiguri, we eventually found a share jeep where the passengers weren’t falling out with the drivers and went to Darjeeling. I’ve often wondered how Indians can drink so much tea – where does it come from? We drove for 3 hours and all I saw was valleys and valleys of tea plantations. Now i understand how Indians can drink cups and cups of strong, milky, sugary tea and still have more to export to the rest of the world! I loved Darjeeling! Its a cool (as in cold) place, in the beautiful mountains, and its full of Tibetans! Lovely, kind, for-the-good-of-everyone-else-over-the-individual Tibetans. We walked to the Tibetan Refugee centre, and saw lovely old men and women tailoring, painting, carving amazing wood carvings, making leather goods and kids playing basketball. Tibetan refugees could never be accused of being lazy; they have supported themselves the whole way since their exile. Their attitude is so inspirational. Then Katie and I walked for miles along roads and tea fields before finding out that the tea factory we wanted to see was closed…nice walk though. We had a great time at ‘Glennary’s’ in Darjeeling. It had the best bakery we’ve found in India, with a coffee shop, so we could sit at big windows with lovely views and drink Darjeeling tea, and downstairs there was a proper bar!! Complete with interesting travelers and a pool table. How exciting! Upstairs there was a restaurant with good food. There was also an internet bit and an STD/ISD (pay phone) inside an actual British red phone box (in the middle of the shop). What more could you ask for?We met a guy in Glennary’s who has visited Bhutang. Bhutang is amazing. It is the perfect fairytale kingdom. The King genuinely works for the people, to the point where he is in the front line in war, and the people are happy. It had no currency until about 5 years ago and is almost completely self-dependent. There is no crime, and the environment is really well looked after, so it has beautiful forests. However, it is also sadly unsustainable. The Royal family has now grown so big that there are power struggles and so the King himself has decided to build a democracy instead. Very interesting though if you ever get to hear anyone talk about it who has been.We stayed in a cheap place with no hot water (it was pretty cold, so this was something to endure -very refreshing…) while the others, who have been traveling for only about 6weeks (and so have more money!) stayed somewhere a little better up the road. Emily flew to Darjeeling too! Emily is from the same town and school as Rosie, just to add to the coincidences! In our bathroom there was an enormous moth. It looked like a piece of bark, but had huge beady eyes. It was incredible – an amazing example of evolution! Nevertheless, it was huge and the eyes were freaky, so I asked the lovely old Tibetan ‘Aunty’ to come and remove it. She came with her broom and it had a trip into the toilet, before deciding that she was ok and attaching itself to her, so she walked out of the room. Amusing, and I felt like such a girl!Tasha and Rosie came for about 12hours, after their train was badly delayed, and then left for Calcutta. After about 2days, Katie and I got a share jeep down to New Jalpaiguri and waited in the train station for our 2am train to Calcutta. However, at about 12.30am, I went to find out if the train was on time…then I had another amazing experience. I found 4 or 5 men all dressed from head to foot in white, sitting in an office, with nothing to do (in the middle of the night…). I showed my ticket and then heard the words you absolutely do not want to hear at 12.30/1am in a train station in the middle of India, as 2 young white girls… “this train has already left”. The day before. We were then informed that all trains to Calcutta were fully booked. However, these men just told me exactly what to do. They told me not to worry. I bought an unreserved ticket and then came back. They said they’d do what they could, and that it would all be ok. Later, one of the men came to the ladies waiting room and introduced me to the train conductor for that train. I have no idea how the train conductor was there, when the train did not terminate there, but he sat me down and went through all the lists of passengers. He told me that the quotas were full for that station (so even if he could find me a free seat he technically couldn’t sell it to me) and there were no seats. He said they would find something when the train came. We came to sit in his office, so that we were safe in the station, and then when the train came, the conductor sat us down on and a/c berth and told us to remain there. The man in white who had been helping me even came to the platform and did not leave until he knew that we had a berth and not only that, but that it was in ordinary sleeper class. He seemed to know without me telling him that we couldn’t afford a/c. Eventually, the conductor came back and at 4 or 5am we were taken through the staff quarters and the kitchens (another interesting experience!) to 2 berths in sleeper class. This was on a completely full train. Then we never saw any of these people again. I am convinced I met angels that night.I’m in Calcutta now, waiting to go to the train station for our train back to Vijayawada. Yesterday, we met Tasha and Rosie again in the Salvation Army Guest House we’re staying in. We’re staying in the girls dormitory, with lots of interesting western travelers, some of whom are working at the Mother Theresa home here. There are 200 volunteers there! Yesterday we all walked around Calcutta, got a metro for the great experience (so clean!) and went to an art gallery and saw the Queen Victoria memorial and its gardens. It is insanely hot here, at about 38degrees C and very humid. It will be hotter in Vijayawada. Last time I looked it was 45 in Hyderabad, and its usually hotter in Vij. Help! Still, at least we’ve been sort of eased into it a bit gentler by comming here to Calcutta first! Tasha and Rosie have now gone to get their 27hour train back to Chennai and then on to Valpurai, back to their project. I’ve really really enjoyed traveling! It was so much more worthwhile and exciting than 5 star hotels in tourist holes in the Mediterranean! India is a fascinating country, full of wonderful people! We’ve had bad experiences too, and met all sorts of people I’d rather not meet again, but we’ve seen something that is real, and learnt to appreciate it all. I think I’ve taken something away from everyone I’ve met; they’ve all changed my life is some little way, and I’m really grateful for that. Its been meeting people that has really shown me the real India, and we’ve had all our ideas and everything we’ve ever thought shaken upside down and changed. What an amazing experience! I feel so thankful to have had these opportunities! I could so easily not have been born in the west and then I might not have been able to have done any of this. When I found everything so hard at the start, it would have been so easy to have gone home, and then I’d never have done this – thats a really scary thought! Thank you so much everyone who supported me financially, it was because of you, that I knew I couldn’t go home! Now, I’m really excited about going back to Vijayawada! Its a new start, with some new pupils, and now I’ve had my trial run. I’ve figured out, I think, what the girls need (alas it’s only taken 9months!); to understand their text books. If they can understand that English, they won’t have to learn the text books off by heart, but instead they’ll be able to understand what they read, and think about it independently. So that’s my aim. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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