Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in Darjeeling

Darjeeling, INDIA: 22 - 26 December 2011

Christmas week in Darjeeling coincided with the start of the "Tea and Tourism Festival". While this meant a lot of bad live music (e.g. Nepali heavy metal bands) and worse pun-filled posters (e.g. "feastiviteas"), it gave a good buzz to the town.This helped create a Christmas atmosphere, which was especially welcome since most people in Darjeeling are Hindu or Buddhist. However, there are many Christians too, thanks to a history of Catholic missionaries (still today the best school are Catholic-run and I've met several people who have told me that they were taught by Irish priests and nuns) and a more recent wave of Protestant Evangelicals.

Cath, my flatmate from Tralee, and I spent a few hours on Christmas Eve at the Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation wrapping around 250 present for the kids, which was a great way to get into the Christmas spirit. Christmas Day itself was event-filled, fun and very memorable. I spent the morning at the EWSCF centre. Although only some of the children and staff are Christian, the big festivals from all the main religions here are celebrated at the centre. All the children and staff gathered to sing carols, perform plays, dance and eat – people in India are experts at feeding large numbers.For lunch we joined some of our neighbours: Mike and Denna from the US; Heli from New Zealand; Mark from Canada; and Dipong and Sweta from Darjeeling.The food was delicious, and the mulled wine, Irish coffees and general merriment continued until after midnight.

My Christmas in Darjeeling is certainly one that I won’t forget.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why have...when you can...?

Darjeeling, INDIA

To live in Darjeeling, one must do without certain things that are taken for granted in Ireland. Since being here I have realised that there is much that is unnecessary:

Why have a tumble-dryer when you can dry your clothes on your roof?Why have enclosed places to dump rubbish when leaving it on the street means that dogs can eat discarded food?Why have a cricket ball and wickets when waste paper bound by a rubber band and some blocks can be used instead?Why have central heating when a hat, scarf and hot water bottle can keep you warm? (The bizarre picture below contains the three most important things that I have with me here.)Why have McDonalds when you can eat momos? These tasty dumplings, usually filled with onion and cabbage, are my new favourite take-away food. I learned to make them last weekend while staying on an organic farm in the valley below Darjeeling.Speaking of which, why have Ryanair when a great, peaceful, interesting weekend break can be enjoyed simply by walking two hours down into the valley?

Darjeeling may not have everything that you think you might need, but it sure has a lot going for it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Everest Gazing

In and around Singalila National Park, INDIA & NEPAL: 23- 26 Nov. 2011

Just as with its electricity and water supply, Darjeeling's weather is unpredictable. Coming after the monsoon season and before the very cold winter, the months of October and November are generally thought to be the best time to come to Darjeeling for trekking when promises of clear skies offer the best chance to take-in the views of snow-capped mountains. But after a sunny first week, my second week in Darjeeling was a total white-out. The town was engulfed in clouds, the mountains disappeared, and scores of disappointed trekkers were stuck drinking tea and waiting.

So when the weather dramatically improved in the last week of November, I was told that this was the perfect opportunity to go on the four-day trek to Sandakphu (3636 mts) in Singalila National Park. And perfect it turned out to be. I had amazing views of the Himalayas, culminating in getting close to Kanchenjunga and in clearly seeing Mt. Everest. The changing colours that occurred at sunrise and sunset made it extra special.
Apart from the mountains, I experienced many other interesting sights as I criss-crossed the India-Nepal border (my first night was spent in Nepal).From having a noodle-soup lunch in a smoky house with dried yak meat hanging above me from wooden beams, to stopping for tea and a sit down in the sun in the tiny villages I passed through, I had many fascinating glimpses into life in this high altitude border region. While I didn't find the trek all that difficult, partly because I stayed in basic lodges along the way where food was provided meaning that I only had to carry a small backpack, it certainly was a great experience.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Working 9 to 5

Darjeeling, INDIA; 15 Nov - 1 Dec 2011

Part of my time volunteering with the Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation is spent helping out in the office. While some elements of working in an office are universal, most of what I am doing in Darjeeling is far removed from what I did in Dublin.

My "commute" is a pleasant walk from my house (a two-bedroom flat provided by EWSCF for volunteers; for most of my time here so far it has been just me staying there, but another Irish volunteer is arriving in early December). This takes around 25 minutes; faster in the morning (downhill) and slower in the evening (uphill) - in Darjeeling you are always walking either up or down hills.

The work day starts at 9am with the children in the playground doing warm-up exercises and singing songs; starting with "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and ending with the national anthem.

On going up the stairs to the office, the first thing to be done is to check if there is electricity - power cuts are frequent, unpredictable and often last a couple of hours. Almost instantly, and continuously throughout the day, one of the "kitchen mothers" appears offering a cup of tea. I usually don't drink much tea or coffee, but I drink several cups a day here because its cold when you are out of direct sunlight (steam rises from the printer when pages come out) and, well, its Darjeeling, world famous for its tea.

The EWSCF office has two unique features. Firstly, the view out the window is, without a doubt, the best view from an office I've ever seen. Looking down you see green hills covered in tea. And in the distance is Kanchenjunga - the world's third highest mountain. Its hard to stop looking out and start working.
Secondly, on a less positive note, there is the office calendar.The black circles (see most of January and February) mark days when general strikes were called in Darjeeling by the local movement which include many whose ultimate aim is for this area to leave the state of West Bengal and to become an autonomous Gorkhaland. During strikes, no one is meant to go to work and there is an evening curfew. There were less strikes in 2011 compared with 2010, a year where an opposition politician was hacked to death in the street. I've been told that foreigners are never at risk here, and I have felt perfectly safe since arriving.Clearly I know very little about the political situation here. I have pieced a few things together through conversations and from reading Kiran Desai's Booker Prize-winning "The Inheritance of Loss" which is set in this area (although people I know here are not fans of that book). The only observations that I'll make relate to the map below, where West Bengal is shaded red. Firstly, a glance at the map gives an indication of why things are politically complicated, with Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China and the tiny autonomous Indian state of Sikkim all converging in this part of the world (this mix means that people in Darjeeling tend to have an interesting and not "typically Indian" physical appearance).

Secondly, the oddly-shaped state of West Bengal is mostly hot and flat, with cold and hilly Darjeeling attached in the north. Policies that are designed for Calcutta are often not suitable for Darjeeling. To give just one small example, the school uniform allowance is enough to buy the short-sleeved shirt and shorts that are suitable in the plains, but not enough for the layers that children need here. It is not difficult to see how people here, who speak Nepali rather than Hindi or Bengali, could feel aggrieved with how those in Calcutta or Delhi treat this area.

To get back to my work in the office, so far I've mainly been doing two things:

(1) Helping with the accounts - at times I've felt that I've stepped back to colonial times, like when using carbon paper to create, in triplicate, receipt vouchers for money spent on things like tiffin (a British Indian word for a light meal) and coolies (manual labourers who carry heavy goods). Details of all expenditure and copies of all receipts must be sent to Ireland. While the amount of paperwork sometimes seems excessive given the small amounts of money that many of the receipts are for, I understand that when it comes to money given to charities full and transparent accountability is vital.

(2) Writing up the case history for each child - its often difficult for me to reconcile the harrowing tales of neglect, abuse, violence and trafficking with the children happily playing outside in the playground.

Speaking of which, apart from the view, the best thing about working in this office is that when I need a break I can pop outside and play with the kids.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation

Darjeeling, India; 5 - 15 Nov. 2011

After a two-hour internal flight and a four-hour jeep ride up a windy, bumpy road, I arrived in Darjeeling - my home for the next two and a half months. The last time I spent over a month in one place was last year in Ayacucho, Peru. Like Ayacucho, Darjeeling is a mountain town (it is at an altitude of 2100m) with a population of around 130,000 people (and scores of street dogs!).

And just as in Ayacucho, I am spending my time in Darjeeling doing volunteer work for a charity that helps street children, namely the Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation.

Edith, who hails from Cork, began working with street children in the Darjeeling area in 2003. With its night shelters, halfway houses, drop-in centres and outreach programmes, EWSCF currently deals directly with around 100 children, both boys and girls, who are mostly from very poor and often abusive backgrounds.

On my first day, after stopping on the walk to the centre to admire the spectacular view,I was given a tour before joining a group of the boys in a game of football. I spent a lot of my time in Ayacucho playing football, so this reinforced the view that kids are the same the world over.

My first week coincided with "Childrens' Day" in India. Two sports days were held to celebrate - one at the EWSCT centre and one in the town. These featured standard events like sprints, shot putt and long jump. But there were also many unusual races. These included variations on sprints, where the kids ran halfway and then either solved a maths problem,
put on and correctly tied their shoes and shirts or, most bizarrely, had to eat a small cake and drink a juice carton, before continuing onto the finish line.The prizes included badminton rackets and cricket bats. This worked out well for me when these sports (i.e. sports that I can give a decent stab at playing) temporarily replaced the boys' favoured activity of kicking a small "ball" (i.e. a bunch of rubber bands tied together) to each other without letting it touch the ground - an activity at which I'm useless, though I am improving!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Great Expectations Fulfilled

Delhi, Jaipur, Pushkar, Agra, INDIA: 27 Oct. - 4 Nov. 2011

I feel like I had been building up to coming to India for ages. Over the years I read lots of books about or set in India, I always questioned anyone I met who had been, and my career break plan had from the start, though somewhat vaguely, included it on my itinerary. So out of all the countries that I've visited, India was the one that I had built up the most and which therefore made me weirdly nervous.

The much-discussed gap between the rich and poor was immediately evident. Delhi's airport and new "airport express" metro are modern and clean; in contrast on exiting the metro station onto the Main Bazaar you are straight into a chaotic, dirty, food-hawker and cow-filled street.

I was in Delhi the same weekend as India's inaugural F1 Grand Prix. Although I didn't see any of that, while touring around the city to see some very impressive buildings, I saw and was in the middle of streams of horn-blowing traffic. This reminded me of Hanoi. In fact, of countries I've visited this year, one of my initial impressions on being in Delhi was that it is sort of a mix between Vietnam and Ethiopia (I was a little disappointed when I found a world map to see that a line between Addis Ababa and Hanoi cuts through south India rather than Delhi - I had thought that I was onto something).

But on going to the "Monkey Palace" in Jaipur (five hours south-east of Delhi) I saw that India is very much its own unique place. There I witnessed throngs of people (men and women in separate pools) bathing in crowded spiritually-important pools set amid temples built in between huge rocks that dozens of monkeys have made there home. It was an amazing spectacle, like nothing I've ever seen.

From there I headed out to Rajasthan's desert for another unique experience - the annual Pushkar camel fair, the largest in the world. I really enjoyed my time in Pushkar, which was spent sitting on the banks of its holy lake, and strolling around stumbling across things like a monkey riding a pig while a camel looked on.An overnight train (which left at 3:50am, meaning I spent hours in an Indian railway station - an experience in itself) brought me to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. It lived up to all the hype. It truly is breath-taking.I only spent a week hitting the much-visited stops on the tourist "Golden Triangle" of Delhi-Jaipur-Agra (with Pushkar thrown in as I was lucky enough to be nearby during the camel fair). Yet I really enjoyed what I saw and did. So in my first week, India certainly didn't disappoint.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Welcome to India!

Singapore, SINGAPORE & Delhi, INDIA: 25 - 27 Oct. 2011

On my way from New Zealand to India, I spent two nights in Singapore. I liked it more than I thought I would. While I didn't have much time there (just one full day), I feel I made the most of it. In between heavy thunderstorms, I checked out some interesting temples, the modern waterfront and ate some tasty food. A successful stopover.

My flight to Delhi arrived in the evening during the celebrations for Diwali, the Hindu "festival of lights" which is one of India's biggest festivals. This meant that my first sight of India was looking down from the airplane at fireworks going off all over the huge city. It was my best welcome to a country since landing in Dublin Airport at the same time as the Triple Crown-winning Irish rugby team where I exited the arrivals area to a crowd of welcoming television cameras and flag-waving supporters. It was a great start to my three months in India. (I had planned to spend six months in India - five months volunteering and one month travelling. But, to cut a long story of my dramas dealing with the Indian embassy in New Zealand short, I could only get a 90 day visa. So I've had to cut my travel time down to a week and my volunteering to two and half months, which is a pity. But on the bright side, that gives me more time for Nepal, so its all good!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

All Blacks abú!

Wanganui, Lake Waikaremoana, National Park, Auckland, NEW ZEALAND: 11 - 25 Oct. 2011

With Ireland out of the World Cup, my focus shifted from following the rugby to doing activities in scenic parts of New Zealand - a much healthier way of life. I spent ten days working my way from Wellington to Auckland by criss-crossing the North Island. My travels brought me to: Wanganui, where I did a boat and walking day-trip on and around the historically-interesting Whanganui River; the stunning Lake Waikaremoana, where I enjoyed a peaceful three-day walk; and Tongariro National Park, where I went mountain-biking rather than hiking as the majestic snow-capped mountains were shrouded in mist.
Having gotten off the rugby circuit, I met a number of backpackers (e.g. some Germans, Israelis and Americans) who hadn't come to New Zealand for the RWC. I was dismayed to learn that many hadn't done any rugby-related activities. While I fully understand that rugby is barely known, let alone popular, in many countries, to me it beggars belief that you could be in NZ during the World Cup and not get into the spirit of the whole thing. I thought it would be impossible to avoid, given all the flags flying, the "Backing Black" campaign and the special events happening which all gave a great vibe to traveling around the country. But I realised that plenty of tourists had somehow managed to miss it all.

I made it back to Auckland on the Thursday for the buildup to the Final, where I very gratefully again stayed with my friends Sinead and Gavin. We went to the "Taste of Auckland" the evening before the Final, which was very enjoyable.
For the Final, as Gavin and his father headed to the game, I joined Sinead and a gang of their friends in one of the fanzones. It was an extremely tense match, but thankfully the All Blacks held on for victory! There was a fantastic buzz in the city and it was the perfect end to the World Cup and to my time in New Zealand.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ireland v. Wales

Wellington, NEW ZEALAND: 5 - 10 Oct. 2011

After the fantastic atmosphere at the Italy match in Dunedin, I really hoped that I could find an affordable ticket for Ireland's quarterfinal against Wales in Wellington. Luckily a small number of "impeded view" tickets were released in the days before the game, so I got a pitch-side seat which turned out to have quite a good view.
So in total for the four pool games and the quarterfinal I paid NZ$400 (around €230), which I think is very good value.

It was a busy weekend in Wellington with Irish, Welsh, South African and Australian fans filling the city (all accommodation was full so it was great, for many reasons, that I could again stay with my aunt Jacqueline). I spent a few days seeing the sights, which included walking up Mt. Victoria for a view of the city
and visiting the many rugby-related attractions like an art exhibition featuring faces of rugby stars made from toast.
Unfortunately Wales brought the dream of an Ireland - All Blacks final to an end. It was very disappointing, but I've had a great five weeks following the Irish team. It was a new experience for me and, while it was bizarre at times to constantly being surrounded by other Irish people, it was fun and something I would definitely recommend.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ireland v. Italy

Dunedin, Invercargill, NEW ZEALAND: 29 Sept. - 5 Oct. 2011

To paraphrase the Black Eyed Peas' song that gets played in the stadium before each RWC match, as I boarded the plane in Wellington to fly south to Dunedin I got a feeling that the weekend was going to be a good weekend. And so it turned out to be. Everything worked out perfectly for my four days, starting with that flight (as we flew over Wellington Harbour I could see the NZ Navy sailing in to mark its seventieth anniversary; then I spent the rest of the flight looking down on the string of snow-capped mountains that stretched down the South Island) and ending with a fun night celebrating Ireland's 36 - 6 win over Italy.

Dunedin had everything necessary for a memorable long weekend:
  • sunshine (thankfully the repeated warnings that Dunedin would be freezing in September proved incorrect);

  • attractions ranging from the sophisticated (I was impressed by the city centre art gallery) and historical to the touristy (I walked up "the world's steepest street") and fun (on my tour of Cadbury's chocolate factory I had to wear two hairnets - one for my head, the other for my beard);

  • a festival (I scored a free ticket to the Port Chalmers' Seafood Festival);

  • lots of friends (Jen and Patrick also made it down from the previous game in Rotorua and Elaine and her posse flew in from Melbourne for the weekend); and

  • generous locals (I stayed with Ros and Mike, a couple I met briefly over beers in Vietnam, who fed me and provided a plentiful supply of beer and whiskey).

  • When you then add in the fact that thousands of Irish were in town for what turned out to be a game with a fantastic atmosphere in a state of the art stadium, you'll see why I left Dunedin with a very favourable impression.I headed further south to Invercargill, which when I arrived at 6:30pm on the Monday seemed like a ghost town, especially when compared to the bustling Octagon city centre of Dunedin over the weekend. I drove around the Caitlins area, with its green fields full of lambs and its rugged coast full with a history of shipwrecks, and onto Bluff, the southern end of the Highway 1 that runs the length of New Zealand from Cape Reinga in the north (where I was back in February), to complete a memorable week in the South Island. From Invercargill, whose airport is the closest to a town centre that I've ever seen, I flew back up to Wellington where Ireland will play Wales for a place in the semi-final.

    Thursday, September 29, 2011

    Ireland v. Russia

    Paihia, Waipu, Rotorua, Wellington, NEW ZEALAND: 19 - 28 Sept. 2011

    To the many modes of transport I've taken, which include a milk truck in Ecuador and a horse-drawn gari in Ethiopia, I can now finally add the bane of all other motorists, i.e. a campervan. I joined Sinéad, Audrey and Laura in the campervan that they had driven over the past three weeks up from Queenstown and we headed north of Auckland to the Bay of Islands. We were not alone in this plan; the car park in Paihia where we spent two nights was full of Irish-occupied vehicles. I'm getting used to being surrounded by Irish people (and to hearing the Fields of Athenry sung on repeat), but I think it is a bit of a shock for the unprepared locals (the bar we drank in our first night ran out of beer; such an unheard of occurrence happened to us again later in the week in Rotorua). It was a nice couple of days, which included getting the ferry to historic Russel, walking along the coastal path, and doing a short hike up for a view of the scenic bay.
    We hit back south, stopping in Whangarei to soak up the atmosphere for the Tonga-Japan match that was happening there that evening. It wasn't quite the same buzz as when Ireland are in town, but we did see a flash-mob haka (although to be fair it wasn't as good as this haka in the centre of Auckland).

    Following a very welcome night in beds in a friend's holiday home in Waipu (much appreciated after two nights in a campervan in a car park), the girls returned the van and I hit for Rotorua for that weekend's game against Russia. From our big family trip to New Zealand to visit our relations when I was five, one of the things that I always remembered were the bubbling mud pools in Rotorua. It was nice to see that they are still as mesmerising and smelly as ever.

    Then the Irish began rolling into town: the three girls arrived the day after me and we stayed in a ten-bed dorm (with six other Irish people); I went to a Maori cultural performance and meal with two friends from Bishopstown, Jen and Patrick; and I went to the match with a friend from UCC, Colm. The stadium, with its single stand and grassy terraces, was a big change from last week in Eden Park in Auckland, but the atmosphere was jovial, Ireland won and there were lots of tries, so there were plenty of reasons to party that evening (not that many reasons were needed).
    The next day I took a bus south to Wellington for a few relaxing, recuperative days staying with my aunt Jacqueline before flying to Dunedin for the crucial game against Italy.

    Sunday, September 18, 2011

    Ireland v. Australia

    Auckland, NEW ZEALAND: 16 - 18 Sept. 2011

    I thought the atmosphere in the packed Munster Inn and Father Ted's in central Auckland on the Friday night before the big Ireland-Australia would be hard to beat. But the Saturday afternoon in the Clare Inn and around Eden Park in the build-up to the 8:30pm kick-off was even better, with Irish fans and Irish-supporting locals everywhere to be seen. So with my lucky green shoes on, I joined the crowds walking to the impressive stadium for what became an amazing night.
    The atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic
    and the 15 - 6 score in favour of Ireland was unbelievable. What a result and, with Auckland covered in green, what a great weekend!

    Friday, September 16, 2011

    Ireland v. USA

    Auckland, New Plymouth, Whangamomona, Taupo, Hamilton, NEW ZEALAND: 8 - 16 Sept. 2011

    My return to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup started well even before I had left Fiji. A guy I got chatting to in the check-in queue brought me in as his guest to the frequent flyers lounge where free food and beer awaited. Then the flight started with Air New Zealand's entertainng All Blacks safety video. After a friendly chat with the immigration officials about Ireland's chances, I was back in New Zealand ready for a fun six and a half weeks.

    My first two nights were spent in Auckland where I stayed with my friends Sinead and Gavin. We were part of the huge crowds that gathered at the harbour for the opening celebrations, which included the arrival of dozens of traditional Maori canoes (wakas) and a very impressive fireworks display.

    Then, like scores of tricolour-decorated campervans, I hit the road south for New Plymouth for Ireland's opening game against the USA. On approaching the town, I was blessed with majestic views of Mt. Taranki. As is often the case, the mist came in for the rest of the weekend and I never saw sight of the snow-capped volcano again.New Plymouth was packed with Irish fans and, while the match itself wasn't great, Ireland got the win and then the party started.
    It was a great night, during which I met up with my friends Sinéad, Audrey and Laura, so we can now add New Plymouth to Lima and Melbourne in the list of places I've met up with them around the world.
    And in the morning I discovered that I made the front page of the Taranki Daily News; a great souvenir.
    My mini roadtrip to get myself back up to Auckland for next week's game started with a drive along the "Forgotten World Highway", where I stayed a night in the tiny republic of Whangamomona.
    Then onto scenic and fun Taupo for two nights, where I watched a training session of the Welsh team
    and relaxed in stream heated by natural hot springs.
    Myself and the three girls then donned wetsuits and wellyboots and headed underground for some walking, swimming and tubing in the very impressive, glowworm-filled Waitomo Caves. Then one night in Hamilton, where I stayed with a Kiwi friend who I traveled with in Asia, before driving back up to Auckland for what promised to be a big weekend.