Freelance Nomad

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Horsing Around

This is me on a horse. A rare event. I must admit I look most unconvinced by the entire episode.

It was taken last month up at the hill station of Matheran in Maharashtra. Matheran proper is banned to all vehicular traffic so the closest you can get is a car park a few kilometres from the top. From there, you either walk or take a horse... or get pushed up in a hand-pulled rickshaw, if that's your thing.

The horse was called 'Yes Boss'. The guy in charge of said animal was a bit of a joker, and decided to teach me a lesson for haggling over the price by encouraging my steed to gallop along at a fair old pace, whilst Mum, Dad and Jenny gently trotted along behind.

Last time I was in Matheran, Matt and I arrived fairly late after travelling from Mumbai via a couple of local trains and a share taxi. We finally rocked up around 10pm. "Any chance of a horse?" we asked the Ranger. "You must be joking," he replied, or at least Marathi words to that effect. So we trudged up the hill, carrying our heavy bags, in near pitch darkness with only the light of my cellphone to help us on our way. And then, as is inevitably the way with these things, it began to rain: a morale-sapping heavy drizzle that got us soaked through by the time we reached the summit. Damn.

After a night in Matheran and a thoroughly satisfying five-hour walk around the hills, we made the return journey the next day on horseback. At this point I'd like to say that we were like two of the Magnificent Seven - James Coburn and Steve McQueen perhaps - as we confidently rode downhill. In reality of course, we were giggling like schoolgirls. Still, it was a lot less painful than
riding a bloody camel.

Nevertheless, from arriving like thieves in the night, we left like conquering heroes. Kind of.

Photo from Lord's Point, Matheran, August 2006. It’s the rainy season.

The same point in January 2007. Spot the difference.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sunsets in India

One of the nice things about visiting the state of Maharastra in India in January is that when planning outings and activities you don’t have to think “we’ll see what the weather is like”. Likewise, if you want to see a beautiful sunset you’ve only got to choose the location. The sun will be there, for sure. We (Estrid and Andrew, Paul’s parents) have just returned from three glorious weeks in India. It was a very special family reunion as Jenny was able to join us from Germany for the first two weeks.

Paul was in great form and able to spend a lot of time travelling and exploring with us. In Pune we visited both new and familiar places and introduced Jenny to the wonders of the city, especially of course Deep Griha Society. The sunset from the hill above the Ranade Institute was beautiful and the noise from below barely audible.

The Hilltop station of Matheran can only be reached by train, taxi and – to get to the top – on horseback. It is well worth the effort and we spent a couple of days walking in the fresh air and enjoying the spectacular views. The sunset was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen and only slightly marred by a monkey doing its best to nick my bag. I won the battle!

We had all wanted to visit the Konkan coast and were thrilled to find beautiful stretches of empty beaches, banana and coconut plantations (our huts were built right in the middle of one) and to observe a rural way of life. One day we found ourselves on a boat sailing to and from the spectacular Janjira Fort, together with around 20 children singing to us – magic. As expected later that day the sun set in spectacular fashion and painted the sky, the sea and the sand a dark orange.

Our final two days were spent being tourists in Mumbai. Paul knew his way around and guided us with great style and confidence (cocktails in the stylish open-air roof bar of the Intercontinental Hotel? Hmmm – make that three beers, please...). Not only did we get the by now almost taken for granted spectacular sunset but were also treated to an air display watched by thousands of people. They had probably waited for ages. We knew nothing about this but the show began just as we set foot on the beach. When in India, always expect the unexpected.

The most enduring memories, however, are of the people we met, both old friends from our last visit and new ones, easily made in the relaxed atmosphere of the Grand Hotel, Roopali’s restaurant, or even in welcoming Indian homes. Thank you Anjali, Pratik and Rujuta, Meeta and Navin, Neela and Bhaskar, and not least Mira who made us the loveliest cup of chai and told us about her life in the Tadiwala Road community. The hospitality and friendly welcome we had everywhere was so generous and wonderful. But the biggest thank you goes to Paul for sharing your life in India with us for three wonderful weeks. We look forward to our next family get-together!

Estrid and Andrew

Monday, February 05, 2007

Missed calls

I think these are an Indian phenomenon... At least, I've never encountered them anywhere else. So what is a missed call? Basically, it's a quick and handy way of saving a few rupees on phone calls or text messages. You dial a number, let it ring once, and hang up. Simple.

Deceptively simple perhaps. Depending on the circumstances, missed calls may have many different meanings. These include:

- "I'm thinking of you. How's it going?"
- "Yes. I agree" or "Ha. Very funny" [probably with the contents of a recently received SMS]
- "Yep. Will see you there"
- "Where are you? I've been waiting here for bloody ages"
- "Did you get my last message?"
- "I'm waiting right outside. Come meet me"
- "Call me back - I'm out of phone credit" [Hans uses this method on principle]
- "The lecturer has arrived. Leave the canteen and come to class"

Usually, the context will be fairly clear, having been agreed beforehand, for example, "Give me a missed call when you're about to reach and I'll meet you there," or something of that nature.

After a couple of years here I'm beginning to get the hang of them. So if you ever get a one-ringer from my cell number, you'll have to work out exactly what it means.

School pledge

This pledge features in the front of Indian school textbooks and is recited by pupils at the beginning of every day. This photo was taken at the school we used for the Eye Camp in Tambewadi village.
Eye Camps 2007

The team from Vision Aid Overseas were in town last month to run a series of Eye Camps. For the third year in a row - who could have imagined that? - I tagged along for a couple of the rural camps.

The dedication of the team really is remarkable. After flying over from the UK (they pay for their own flights, using their annual leave to come) they undertake a whistlestop schedule of 10 camps in two weeks, providing eye tests for more than 2000 people. Spectacles are dispensed on the spot and referrals made for operations where necessary - usually for cataracts.

VAO provides the optometrists and covers expenses whereas Deep Griha Society handles all the logistics, providing volunteers, translators, transportation and so on. Half of the camps are in urban centres, with the others in rural areas. Kadambari - the all round superwoman responsible for liaising with the villages - does a remarkable job of getting things organised. In the months leading up to the visit, she will go from village to village and persuade each Panchayat (village council) and Sarpanch (village head) to host the camps.

On the day, the VAO team are picked up by minibus and taken to the village. The DGS staff arrive in another vehicle with all the spectacles and equipment. Remarkably quickly, things are set up and the eye tests begin. People are registered, screened, tested and then given prescriptions as necessary. Perhaps as many as 250 people will be seen in one day.
The VAO team are usually welcomed at the start of the day by the Sarpanch. They'll typically be garlanded or given a blessing. When I tag along, I invariably get mistaken for one of the optometrists - in 2005 I was introduced once as 'Dr Paul'; last year it was 'Paul Madam'. Actually, I find it a little bit embarrassing because really I'm just a bystander rather than a member of the team. In this photo, despite my initial protests, I've just had a turban wrapped around around my head - a first for me.

This is Ramdas. As you can see, Ramdas has no arms. I escorted him through registration, and screening. Once we got to the (long) queue for the actual eye test, I was unsure whether to fast-track him through or not. But as a couple of people in the queue were happy to point out, "No, no, he's normal, he can wait." Quite right, I thought. I felt bad for being so patronising. Ten minutes later, Ramdas sneaks up and asks if he can jump the queue. Hey ho. In the end he walked off with two pairs of spectacles - for both close-up and distance vision. Another satisfied customer.

Schoolchildren practicing for the Republic Day celebrations to be held the next day, on 26 January.

Inquisitive locals Sachin and Subash look in at the window.
Results declared

At last the elections are over. In our ward, Shakuntala finished behind the Congress candidate, who was re-elected.

India is proud to be the world's largest democracy. And these local elections are taken seriously, especially in economically deprived areas like Tadiwala Road. While allegations of malpractice surface from time to time, the elections are generally expected to be 'free and fair'. And despite dodgy voter inducements such as illegal cash payments, or even bizarre supposedly legal 'incentive' schemes, people generally accept the results once they have been announced.

The Congress party workers were certainly celebrating. They set up some huge loudspeakers and partied away with dancing, fireworks, paint-throwing and all that tamasha. I spotted a vehicle pulling up just near to the DGS office. Out jumped a couple of Congress workers, who soon unloaded bottles of Kingfisher Strong beer ('strong is wrong' - I know from painful experience) and several pegs of whisky. Time for a party. They must have spent a fair few rupees on hiring those speakers; the monotonous pounding music was driving us nuts. And then suddenly, it stopped.

Peace at last! Excellent.

It turns out that a fight had broken out. A few hooligans were chasing each other up the road wielding big sticks. Hence no more music. Things are back to normal now, and Tadiwala Road has reverted to its regular status of what I'd call 'chaotic harmony'... There's rarely a dull moment around here.