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.