Myles Harrington

Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Becoming a Member of The Village People

In India on May 29, 2010 at 10:30 am

Two Wednesdays ago I left my base in Nandakumarpur and headed south, deeper into the Sunderbans to Sabuj Sangha’s Brajaballavpur base. When I initially set off at 6am I thought I was only going for two nights so I was grossly under prepared for my eight day excursion; two t-shirts, one book and no phone or ipod chargers. Little did I know then how rural the area was. The electricity came from a village generator and there was absolutely no chance I was getting an English paper, let alone the latest Dan Brown. Hence I ended up reading The War of the Worlds twice and purchasing a deck of cards, so that in my spare time I could recreate the solitaire game I’ve recently become addicted to on my Blackberry.

While I was there I stayed with the friendly team of five staff members in their two room office cum home where they worked extremely long days (5am to midnight) for seven days a week. The house had no running water so trips to the well, that was luckily located outside the property, were frequent.

The three amigos; Aroof (sp), Goutam and Bhabani

We ate as they always did at a local lady’s house a short walk from the office. The two cooks took it in turns to conjure up delicious Bengali cuisine for every lunch and dinner. Some personal favourites were a sour fish curry and a spicy colcannon type dish (aloo chokha). The meals were very carb heavy but so good. A typical dinner was a mound of rice, a few chapatti, aloo chokha, potato and marrow curry and a fish and potato curry. Gillian McKeith would have had a heart attack at the sight of it. I also learnt how to eat rice and curry with my hands, which is easy when you know how, although my attempts on the first day caused many laughs.

Very handy

The village itself is a quaint place where everyone knows everyone and everything. The gossip spread about me being in town and rumours were aplenty, I was even the local photographer’s desktop background for a day. It was rather strange how the locals started talking to me in Bengali as if they expected me to know it and were often shocked when I told hem I didn’t know Hindi either. Only a handful of people knew some key English words so I could roughly get a basic conversation going in the tea shops with charades. Even though we couldn’t communicate verbally it was very easy to make friends with the villagers and by the end of my week in town I couldn’t walk down the street without being offered a Char (tea).

The working men's club

A little map I drew of the main bazaar

The work Sabuj Sangha is doing in Brajaballavpur is essential to the redevelopment of the area’s economy and the peoples’ lives after Cyclone Aila struck last May. The team there are mainly concentrating on rebuilding the area’s agricultural system because the economy is so reliant on the income from crops. The soil was polluted by the salty water from the Bay of Bengal making it very difficult for the rice paddy to grow as normal. The organisation is also operating a cash for work programme where the villages can apply to work for 100 Rs (£1.50) a day. The work is grueling hard labour, re-digging the ponds that are used as a water resource and fisheries, that were filled in by the mud Aila brought. I only did it for about half an hour and my hands were raw, my back hurt, my hair was matted with clay and I was covered in mud. The villagers were carrying three times the amount I did too. They definitely earn their money!

Don't give up your desk jobs

Scaring The Kids of Nandakumarpur

In India on May 27, 2010 at 7:23 am

No blog post for over ten days. Very poor form. But I have an excuse! I have been in the Sunderbans for most of the last two weeks working with Sabuj Sangha, a locally based NGO that specialises in health, education, water and sanitation, woman’s rights and micro-finance projects for the people in the Sunderbans area of West Bengal.

My first week with the organisation was spent at their Nandakumarpur HQ. It takes about three hours to get there from Kolkata. Firstly, by a packed commuter train for an hour and a half and then by auto rickshaw from the nearest train station for the rest of the journey.

At their HQ there is an excellent hospital with all mod-cons and a great primary school with just over 100 students. My primary objective at the school was to help out with the English lessons and to generally have fun with the kids. I was staying on the school grounds in their very cosy accommodation, which was complete luxury compared to some of the dives i’ve stayed in. They even provided me with soap and mineral water on demand. The chai was also one of the best i’ve had and the food was delicious for the whole of my time there, all thanks to the attentive canteen manager and his two wonderful cooks.

When the kids finally came to me

I managed to sneak into the compound on my first day without the pupils spotting me. When they eventually did at home time they were so scared! I couldn’t get within 50 metres of them for the first twenty minutes. No matter how much I chased or put out my hand, smiled or waved.  Eventually they all got the courage to come to me so I showed them my Blackberry and all of the photos of people back home and played them a selection of songs from my ipod. Bill Withers, The Corrs and Bob Marley featured on the playlist. I thought Digitalism would have blown them away so steered clear of anything too abstract for their innocent ears. Then I bought them sweets and took a few photos to their amazement.

Initially it all seemed easy enough until on my first day of proper teaching I was put in front of a class and told to teach. Having never taught anything in my life before I was a little uneasy and managed to blag my way through teaching them basic questions and answers such as “how are you?”, “What food do you like?” and “What is your favourite colour?” etc.

I scored five! If only I was that good against people my own size

For the rest of my time there after my dodgy first lessons I just asked to help the other teachers and we seemed to work well as a double act. I would write on the board and pronounce the words while the teachers would translate for the children what I wanted them to do.  I also taught them rhymes before lunch time such as Baa Baa Black Sheep and Humpty Dumpty which the children loved.

The P.E teacher sings his heart out for the students. My rhymes weren't quite that impressive

Chilling in Kolkata

In India on May 16, 2010 at 11:27 am

I was in Kolkata for three days last week doing as much sightseeing as physically possible in the heat. There’s a lot of interesting things to do and the one line metro is a great help for getting around. It’s so much nicer than Delhi. Less hasslers nagging you and pretending to be your friend and you can even walk from place to place because there are street signs! (If you can withstand the sweating)

Jealous? You shouldn't be

On Tuesday I went to The Indian Museum of Kolkata, an old-school museum that is kind of like a small version of London’s Natural History Museum. There are a few rooms of interest, I enjoyed the old coins and the deformed human embryo.

The pickled baby of Kolkata

After an hour there I went to the amazing Victoria Memorial (but not inside, it is far too expensive) which is the kind of building we should have more of in Britain. Then I just strolled around the Chowringhee area in general trying to get my battered Lonely Planet guide re-binded to no avail.

Vicki's Memorial in full bloom

Half of Wednesday was taken up in an Indian post office to my frustration. The Indian postal system is one of the most bureaucratic organisations I have ever known. I arrived with my parcel for the lucky birthday boys and girls and the rest of the rabble back in London, nicely wrapped with strong parcel tape and with a clear label with a white background. The Royal Mail would have thought I’d put far too much effort in. This wasn’t good enough for the red tape jobsworths at Mirza Ghalib St Post Office. I needed to get it all sewn up in cotton, photocopy my own postal form and then paste and sew that form on different sides of the parcel. When I came to pay after an hour and a half of pandering to their petty demands they said come back tomorrow. For it was 4.10pm and they stop dealing with parcels at 4pm. aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!

What a waste of time.

After that hassle I needed some tranquil time off so I headed to Mother Teresa’s house and illegally took some snaps of her possessions.

Mother's last passport

It was there that I met Ryan (an Australian) and Anya (from Belgium) they’d been travelling together for the last two days since they met on a plane and arrived in India. I told them about my plans to go and relax in the air con sanctuary of the Birla Plantarium. They joined in on the plot to cool down and afterwards we went for an amazing Bengali feast at Bhojohari Manna that place definitely deserves its reputation as one of the best eateries in town. Succulent fish, massive prawns the size of lobsters and well defined flavours in the veg dishes. The ice cream was also a winner with Anya getting two helpings.

This probably would have looked better if I hadn't attacked it first

Notes From a 40 Hour Train Journey

In India on May 11, 2010 at 6:04 pm

It began at 8.50pm Saturday 8th May at Old Delhi Station and ended at 12.30pm 10th May at Kolkata, a journey of epic proportions. In that time I could have gone from London to New York and back two and a half times or got the train from London to Manchester and back ten times. I even learnt to drive and passed my test in less time. It was an agonisingly slow train and if the staff at Bikaner station had been more helpful, I say more, I mean just helpful, then I could have got here in less than half the time.

The ticket so beautifully displayed on the red leather AC section seat

Some highlights of the trip include:

  • Seeing a text message from Osama Bin Laden from the Muslim guy who was sat next to me on and off along the way (I thought he was probably dead too)

Considering he's so good with technology Bin Laden needs to learn how to spell. It's F R I E N D

  • Meeting my fellow compartment travellers, Sheshank (Monu) Shubham. A man who was called Uncle, i’m not sure if that was his real name or a term of endearment made up by Monu and two quite girls who before they left warned me of the Muslim whose name is Raul and “Not to accept anything he gives you”, they didn’t realise it was too late and i’d already had a double rum and water from him.
  • Eating the fattest banana i’ve ever eaten
  • Having a poo and seeing it drop onto the tracks

Monu, Raul and the two quiet girls

Uncle Kracker

They looked fatter in real life. Don't worry I didn't take a poo pic, I was tempted though

My dear friend Monu now keeps sending me motivational text messages including one last night at 23:17 which said “Gudnyte. mising u myles so much : -) tkcare.”, before that it was “Life is very short. So break silly rules, forgive quickly, believe slowly, love truly, laugh loudly & never avoid anything that makes you smile” and his first, which i think might be his best was “Gudmorning miles, i m in my home. Its feel gud. Have a sweet day 4 u. Bye.”

I bought a new SIM today.

Jaisalmer and Udaipur: A Hospital Visit and A Shave

In India on May 8, 2010 at 12:36 pm

The night train to Jaisalmer was like sleeping in a sand pit. The desert tracks and wide windows were not a good combination. Luckily we still had the extra strong sleeping pills from Shimla but we woke up looking like we’d rolled down a sand dune.

We stuck to our commitment to the dice

We had plans to rent motorbikes and drive out to a small village or to the Sam sand dunes about 40kms away. Minja was tired so she checked into a room on the 1st floor of the train station while Filip and I booked train tickets and picked up the bikes. Minja was still tired when we returned at 9am so we went back into town and had breakfast. It was then when it happened.

I would like to say I was pulling wheelies along the highway when an elephant came out of nowhere being chased by a tiger, I swerved crashed into a fruit stall and grazed my knee. The real tale was more like this; I snatched the clutch on the third time I’d ever pulled away on a bike, narrowly missed a rickshaw and fell off the bike to the side. I did graze my right knee but sliced open my left leg on something sticking out of the motorbike. Luckily a rickshaw driver saw the incident, along with half the population of Jaisalmer that were hanging around the main square, and he drove me off to the dirtiest hospital i’ve ever seen.

The fresh gash

Such a happy chappy just doing his duty

Stitch up

After the incident we just chilled out for a bit while I got drugged up on paracetamol and then headed out on the open road to grab a deal on camel rides at the Sam sand dunes. En route we stopped off at the exclusive Thar Vilas so the other two could have a dip in the 5000 Rs a night hotel pool.

When we arrived in Sam, extremely windswept but invigorated by the freedom of the open road, we haggled with a few of the hustlers for a good deal. We wanted accommodation in a hut, dinner, evening entertainment, breakfast and a camel ride all for 1000 Rs in total (£5 each). We managed it and also got a 20% discount on beers in the local beer shop.

Minja showing the locals how it's done

The entertainment was good fun but went downhill when us westerners thought it was a good idea to do an impromptu acoustic session of Hit The Road Jack. It was only when we were up there, on stage, that we realised only one of the English blokes we’d met knew one verse. It was a low point when the owner of the camp said “do another one or let the band carry on”. I think they were expecting too much of six drunks.

The next morning, suffering slightly from the legal bhang and the strong Kingfishers the three of us hit the dunes on camels and luckily for my arse the ride was only 20 minutes long.

Camel trekking in the Thar Desert

Back on our arses again we returned to Jaisalmer via a couple of Pepsi stops in local villages and got a luxury bus that afternoon to Udaipur. The town is probably most famous for its floating palace and featuring in the Bond film Octopussy. It was here, a month after leaving Blighty I decided it was time to scrap the beard. How else would you go about doing that in India then with a trip to the barbers? The sleazy Mexican look was my moustache of choice.

I can guarantee the closest shave you'll ever know.

We just had a lazy day in Udaipur with a ride on the city’s ropeway, a couple of Kingsishers in a park, a rushed DVD burning session and a long goodbye at the train station. I was now alone again, Swedeless, and off on a three day journey to Kolkata.

A trip on the ropeway. I had to upload a pic of the new look too

Alea Iacta Est

In India on May 8, 2010 at 11:16 am

It began on the bus from McLeod Ganj to Amritsar. Filip, Minja and I came up with the unoriginal idea of letting a die decide where to go next. I had plans to go to Agra and Varanasi on the way to Kolkata and the other two didn’t have a clue where to go.

Filip was dieing to get to the next destination

So, we purchased a very cheap and small die from a 7 in 1 game pack from a toy shop near the Golden Temple and arrived on Sunday morning bright and early at the train station to find the perfect roller. We wanted someone who would understand the enormity of the task assigned to them, so they would probably need to speak English and also someone with a good character so they’d become part of the game. We’d already randomly assigned the six places we’d like to visit to the six sides, some wacky and some obvious, through picking out of a tibetan style hat. It was necessary to do this because the die was lopsided and had a tendency to favour the 2 and 5.

The six destinations of destiny

Why did I waste my money on that stupid hat?

As we announced our intentions to a few of the hassling rickshaw drivers on the train station forecourt a crowd started to gather. I felt like Dave Gorman on one of his missions or Dave Cameron on the campaign trail. One Sikh man turned us down, “You don’t want a rickshaw then it’s not my job” and out of nowhere the perfect gent stepped into the circle to take centre stage and do the deed. The five foot tall drunk in orange rags was explained his duty in hindi and kindly obliged to accept the challenge. A throw to the floor and the number, as half expected but not certain, was a 5. We were off to Jaisalmer. That is the place Lonely Planet says you’re mad as a dog to go to during the summer.

He was the man for the job and got paid generously for it

The fatal five

We went straight to the station manager to ask for advice on how we can complete our mission and he sold us an interesting but extremely confusing train timetable, Trains at a Glance. We roughly deciphered a route from the map but after going back and forth from the booking and reservation offices left without tickets and decided to return on the day to see if we could blag it.

Monday morning and we’d discovered the previous afternoon from helpful travel agents that it was best to go from Jalander City (70km from Amritsar) and get the 13.30 train to Jodhpur and then the day after get the 23:something from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. A massive mission but we had to complete it because the die had spoken.

A two hour government bus to Jalander and with half an hour to spare we’d made it and had the vital 2nd class tickets to Jodhpur. We of course blagged it all of the way in sleeper class to the annoyance of some polite families who hadn’t the heart to tell us to move and a very kind conductor who hadn’t the language skills or time to fine us.

We decided to hop off the train early in order to sleep properly at Bikaner where we had a fantastic day waiting for the 23:something night train the next day to Jaisalmer. We did most of the sights the town has to offer. A camel farm/research centre (the only one in the world), a rat temple (also, probably the only one in the world) and the old fort (one of many in Rajasthan).

Not as good as goats milk. Camel is the salty, more lean alternative

Not a place for the squeamish. The Karni Mata Temple, Bikaner

The Amazing Golden Temple of Amritsar and a Patriotic Display to Remember

In India on May 4, 2010 at 6:02 am

When we arrived in Amritsar off the bus we were standardly besieged by a bunch of rickshaw drivers all vying for our business. We chose one and tried three hotels that were all full so we ended up in the delightfully scummy Hotel Paris. Champes Elysee chic it was not. After a quick shower we were off out to the Jewel in Amritsar’s crown, the Sikh Golden Temple. It really is an amazing sight, especially as we visited at dusk. I was surprised there weren’t actually that many tourists in the complex so we had to have our pics taken with quite a few Indians. After perusing the temple at a leisurely pace we went to the infamous free dining hall for a respectable meal of dal, chapati and come delicious rice pudding. We then got a two hour tour of the kitchen area and were told all about Sikhism but an ethusiastic volunteer guide. The best bit about the Golden Temple is not the forty odd pillars they stole from the Red Fort in Delhi, It’s not the intricate gold carvings and marble inlays, it is the chapati machine! That beast is working 24 hours a day to feed the 60-80,000 visitors per day. It can make 7,000 chapatis an hour. All in a Bertha style fashion.

eeeeyyyyyyy theeerrreeee, I’ve found the building of gold mi hearties

Sunday morning we were up early to hit two more essential Amritsar tourist spots. First up was the Hindu cave temple, the Mata Temple. Compared to its Amritsari brother the Golden Temple, the Mata Temple seemed a bit gimmicky. Perhaps it is disrespectful to say so, it is a holy place after all but I think I was expecting some kind of underground network of caves with stalactites and natural pools. It was good fun climbing through the man-made cave like walkways and the paintings were vibrant but I wouldn’t say it was a must visit. We did however get some amazing naan bread style snack smeared with herb butter stuffed with what I think was parsnip from a street restaurant just outside.

Theme parkesque caves at the Mata Temple, Amritsar

The afternoon was taken up with a trip to the India/Pakistan border for the daily border closing display. A fantastic demonstration of patriotism that the English can only muster 10 tins down during an England semi-final. Perhaps it is because we were sat for over an hour and a half on concrete but I think the festival like build up to the event was actually better than the leg throwing antics of the soldiers.

Flying the flag for Hindustan

Of course the draw of free food at the Golden Temple could not be resisted for too long, so we headed back there for Sunday’s evening meal. After stop offs at a chicken restaurant in the dodgy alcoholic area of town where Minja got a rock thrown at her and Dominos pizza for a one pound margarita. They change the menu every four hours at the temple so it was aloo gobi for supper followed by a spot of volunteering. Filip and I handed out the chai bowls to visiting pilgrims for 15 minutes which was greatly appreciated by the old sikh men and mad me feel not so bad for taking the extra chapati and double round of tea. 

Paying for my chapati