Freelance Nomad

Thursday, March 29, 2007


Back in the day, Hans and I were sat in a pub somewhere - Goa I think - and we were talking about the need for a car so we could go off on regular jollies.

"What we need is some kind of awareness vehicle for DISHA. Then we could borrow it at weekends."
"Yeah, just a second-hand Maruti 800. Paint it up and you're good to go."

"Or a van. That'd be practical."
"Yeah, we could do it up like the 'A Team' van and everything. You know, black with red trim."

We returned to our beers.

Fast forward six or seven months, and we're organising the Wake Up Pune campaign. By sheer coincidence, the campaign colours are black and red. One of the old Deep Griha vehicles is sitting idle, having been replaced recently. Why don't we revive the old A Team plan?
And lo, the DISHA Mobile Awareness Vehicle (D-MAV) was born. We drafted a proposal and sketched out the design. I knocked up the necessary artwork in Photoshop. Funding was secured (kind thanks to the Acorn Fund) and the battered old vehicle went for a complete refit: bodywork, lighting, custom PA system, the lot.

I have to admit I was pretty excited to see the end product.

The D-MAV will be used primarily for rural outreach. Members of the DISHA team will head to the villages and run street plays and awareness sessions about HIV and AIDS. The D-MAV is also a visible advertisment for the Wake Up Pune campaign, and will be present at all high profile DISHA events.

Sadly, Hans and I won't be able to use it for our holidays. But I'm glad that all our hard work slaving over a beer has finally been vindicated...

Just to let you know, since I'm in Nepal I can't be reached on my Indian phone number... So if you want to get in touch, best to email or post comments on the blog. I'll let you know once normal service is resumed... Cheers!

Monday, March 26, 2007


After a few days in Kathmandu I decided it was time to get out and explore the valley a little. I decided upon an overnight stay in Nagarkot, a hill-station 35km east of Kathmandu, famous for its Himalayan views, especially at sunset and sunrise.

Dodging a Maoist rally just outside Thamel I took a taxi to the old bus stand, where I hopped on a crowded bus to Bhaktapur – passing three more rallies on the way – for the connecting bus to Nagarkot. The second bus was even more crowded than the first, so I decided to clamber up and sit on the roof, a first for me. Despite the discomfort of perching on the luggage rack it was an exhilarating experience, especially with the great views over the valley as we made our way uphill.

There was a little drama when we ground to a halt and everyone suddenly started jumping out of the doors or leaping off the roof. I didn’t really know what it was all about until I climbed down and noticed the increasing pool of petrol leaking from underneath the bus. Some guy was studiously inspecting the leak – fine – although worryingly he had a lit cigarette between his lips. Along with about a third of the other passengers I decided to walk the last few kilometres. The bus did overtake us later on, just before breaking down again.

Now I probably only saved about Rs150 (just over $2) travelling by public transport rather than some kind of tourist bus but frankly, where’s the fun in that?

Once I finally arrived in Nagarkot I hiked further up the ridge and found myself a charming little ‘bamboo hut’ (actually half brick, half wood) overlooking the valley. It cost Rs300, after a little haggling. Perfect.

The next morning I was up at 4.30am for the walk to an observation tower in time for sunrise. With no moon and little light pollution to speak of, the night sky was filled with stars. Equipped with a head torch, I walked the several kilometres uphill out of town to the observation tower, originally part of the Survey Department’s Trigonometrical Station.

Near the top I was passed by a couple of taxis, filled with tourists who had (perhaps sensibly) decided that a few hundred rupees was fair trade for an extra 45 minutes in bed. Still, it was worth the walk. As the sun rose, the mountain ranges came into view, along with the rolling blue foothills rising from the valley. A spectacular panorama gradually appeared: to the northwest, the Ganesh Himal; to the north, the peaks of the Langtang Himal. Apparently, on a clear day you can see five of the world’s eleven highest peaks including the Annapurna Range to the west and even distant Everest in the east, but it was a little cloudy for that. I wasn’t complaining however, and neither were any of the other 20 or so tourists scattered about.

The walk back was a breeze, although I felt sorry for the army soldiers barracked here who have to run up and down to Bhaktapur every day. Several platoons passed me by on their early morning jogs as I strolled gently down.

After loading up with a hearty breakfast, I checked out and hit the trail. My plan was to hike the 3-4 hours to Changu Narayan (a historic temple and world heritage site) before continuing down to Bhaktapur for the bus back to Kathmandu. It sounded reasonable enough in my guidebook (a vintage first edition Rough Guide) but with a fully loaded backpack, it was hard work. Still, the decent along the ridge was wonderful, passing through interesting little villages and through lovely countryside along the way. The temple itself was interesting, with intricate wood carvings decorating the exterior and several priceless statues scattered about the grounds, though some restoration work was taking place on a nearby building (looked more like a demolition to me) so there was a lot of dust flying about in the strong wind.

It’s at least 10km from Nagarkot to Changu Narayan, and a further 5km down to Bhaktapur. Combined with the trip to the observation tower it was a fair amount of walking in one day, but undoubtedly good practice for the trekking that’s to follow once Matt arrives…

In front of the Langtang Himal, viewed from Nagarkot.
I'm laughing thanks to the young Japanese tourists who took the picture, who made me say 'SUSHI!' as the shutter clicked. They all joined in.

Buddhist prayer flags silhouetted by the sunrise, Nagarkot.

Countryside on the walk from Nagarkot to Changu Narayan
The entire walk had views like this. The countryside here reminds me of the hills near Sapa in north Vietnam, although it was rainy season when I was there.

Friday, March 23, 2007


When backpacking around, it’s always interesting arriving in a ‘traveller hub’. I’ve been to a few. Khao San Road in Bangkok. Sudder Street in Kolkata. Colaba in Mumbai, Pushkar in Rajasthan, Anjuna in Goa. Various quarters and districts in Phnom Penh, Chiang Mai, Saigon, Hanoi…

And now one more to add to the list: Thamel, in Kathmandu.

I got a taxi from the airport, 5km out of town. I guess Kathmandu is one of those rare capital cities where you could conceivably walk downtown from the airport, but I wasn’t really up for that. So, after dodging the shady taxi touts around the arrivals hall and taking a stroll down the road, I flagged down a metered cab.

Thamel features the usual tourist mishmash of moneychangers, travel agents, touts, would-be-guides, curio vendors, postcard sellers, hustlers, street children and rickshawalas, scattered around all the restaurants, cafes, bars, bookshops, cybercafes and new age shops. In Thamel of course, there’s also a healthy number of trekking equipment stores. And you’re never too far from some shady character whispering offers of hash, opium or whatever.

In one bookshop south of Durbar Square, on a road nicknamed Freak Street ever since its 1960s hippy heyday, I spotted a book called ‘Auto Urine Therapy’ by ‘An Experienced Physician’. The front cover featured a line drawing of what could only be somebody drinking their own piss out of a wineglass. As the blurb stated:

An ideal way to express your good wishes
An humble appeal to society
Present this book to your loved ones

I’ll be sure to remember that around Christmas time.

Just a few minutes walk from Thamel is Kathmandu’s historic old town area. It’s a fascinating mix of small lanes, medieval buildings, temples and bazaars. But it certainly doesn’t have a sterile chocolate-box feel; it’s alive, densely populated and busy.

I sometimes think the true way to appreciate any city is not to concentrate on ground level, but to look up. Above the shops that tend to dominate the street you can see all kinds of interesting features. Here in Kathmandu, most of the old dwellings are tall, narrow buildings with lots of small windows, all decorated with wonderful wood carvings. Even the new (concrete) buildings seem influenced by the old designs.

The Durbar Square area is home to the old royal palace, and a whole host of quirky temples, statues and historic buildings. It’s great just to wander around for a while, spotting an erotic carving here, a giant pair of drums there… On my first night I took an evening walk back through the old town and spotted a crowd watching young men take turns to twirl a 10m pole on the narrow lane just outside a temple, pausing very occasionally to let the traffic past, or disentangle the pole from the electricity cables running overhead.

Street in old Kathmandu.
On the right you can see a typical traditional Newar building, with wooden shutters for the ground floor premises and carved wooden balconies on the upper floors. Even modern brick building next door is designed along the 'tall and narrow' principle.

Carved wooden masks for sale at the Swayambunath Stupa in Kathmandu.
Akthough the stupa is a Buddhist monument, Nepal is 90% Hindu and the masks demonstrate this influence. Scattered around the large stupa which located 300 steep steps up a big hill, there's an interesting mix of small temples and monasteries, postcard sellers, curio shops, cafes and even a bureau de change. For a religious site representing the thirteen steps to enlightenment, you're certainly never too far from earthly distractions. Next time I visit I'll check if there's a cybercafe up there.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The best laid plans…

I know it’s been a long time. For many of you, I’m sure it appears I’ve dropped completely off the radar. Usually, I begin my postings with some kind of apology, citing time constraints as the reason why I haven’t updated the site in so long. Or replied to the ever-growing pile of emails in my inbox, for that matter. And if it ain’t broke, why fix it, right?

So yes, I have been busy. First of all, the usual excitement at Deep Griha. There’s never a dull moment at that place, and I’ve been getting involved in various projects, helping out where I can. At times it’s been hard work, but I’m learning constantly and soaking it all up.

Back in December, I submitted a proposal for Deep Griha to Commonwealth Connects (a pan-Commonwealth development initiative focused on information communication technology). The proposal was entitled ‘ICT skills training for urban slum communities in Pune, India’ and for a couple of months I kind of forgot about it. Then, out of nowhere, I received an email inviting me to present the proposal at the Commonwealth Connects 2007 conference, to be held in New Delhi on 23-24 March. It’s always nice to receive some positive feedback and since I don’t have any formal training in development issues it’s good to know that the proposals I write are generally along the right lines.

The only hitch was that the conference was scheduled for a week after my visa expired. But things can sometimes be arranged…

My plan was simple: head up to Delhi a few days early, procure a 14-day visa extension from the Ministry of Home Affairs, attend the conference, then overland it to Nepal. As luck would have it, my old buddy Matt was making plans to trek in Nepal around the same time. Bingo – we’ll team up. After a few weeks clowning around the Himalaya, return to India on a fresh visa. Job done.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The MHA didn’t like the sound of me attending a conference on a tourist visa, not least one organised by a commercial sounding name like the Commonwealth Business Council. The fact that the event was co-sponsored by the Government of India, the keynote speaker was President Kalam and that a load of ministers and officials would be in attendance didn’t make any difference. The problem is that tourist visas are (ostensibly) non-extendable, and can’t be converted to any other kind of visa – such as a conference visa for example.

My old Pune University batchmate Jasmeet had met me outside the visa office. He’s a Delhi local (Dilliwala?), and as he rightly pointed out, “You don’t know how the system works.” We quickly embarked on a whistlestop tour of various government departments in an attempt to get the necessarily clearance. Jasmeet showed exactly the right kind of dogged persistence combined with infinite patience which seems to be the way to go about these things. I just played the role of ‘bemused foreigner’, a part I was born to play. At one stage, we managed to get as far as some junior undersecretary in the right department, but by then it was getting late. “It’s 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and your visa expires on Sunday. It would be very difficult to get much done in time,” he told us.

So that was that. I was left in somewhat of a dilemma, because with my visa expiring in just two days I had to leave the country sharpish. I did have a train booked from Delhi up to near the Nepalese border, but of course that was scheduled for after the conference. There’s a long waiting list for tickets so getting something the next day would have been impossible. We enquired at a respectable-looking travel agency in Connaught Place about flights to Kathmandu, leaving in the next couple of days.

Everything was booked out, on all airlines. Not good.

What about Colombo, Sri Lanka? (Always a good backup.) Nope. Nothing available at short notice. Okay… getting desperate here… what about Bangkok? Possible. But only a one-way ticket, because my visa was about to expire. What’s that got to do with the agent? That’s my problem, I protested; I’d get a new Indian visa once I arrived. Nothing doing. I pointed out that last time I booked a ticket to Bangkok the agent refused to sell me a single ticket, due to non-existent (or at least, non-enforced) Thai regulations. That’s why I ended up thinking about returning to India to study (lucky for me, as it turned out). This time, I wanted a return ticket, and they’d only sell me a one-way passage out of the country. Shi baba.

“What we need,” I said to Jasmeet, “Is a proper Indian travel agent. You know, some guy with a telephone.”

It didn’t take long. We passed a bureau de change and Jasmeet asked the man inside about travel agencies, and lo and behold he led us to exactly the kind of place we were after: guy with phone. Within half an hour, I had a flight booked to Kathmandu, leaving the next day.

So here I am. The plan is to kick around for a couple of weeks until Matt arrives, then hit the trail. I’m here earlier than scheduled, but that’s not the end of the world. First impressions are good and I’m looking forward to exploring the Kathmandu valley over the next few days. Watch this space…