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.