Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Public Swimming

I completely forgot / chose not to take my camera on this trip to the Swimming Pool; why would I?! So these photos come courtesy of Donnie who also visited on a different day to us.

Adi (our local guide and all round awesome chap), Alfie, Nicky and I decided that visiting the swimming pool would be a nice way to spend a public holiday. So we took the local bus (15 Rp each way) with a whole basket full of chicks and other locals, to the swimming pool which we were first told was closed and then eventually were let in after waving some money around.

Amusingly, the pool is sponsored by Pepsi, and they cannot spell 'Gents':

It was outdoors and unheated but nearly olympic-sized (I would say 35 to 40m long). While we were there, it was virtually deserted, but some lifeguard-looking people came out to watch us westerners swim for a little bit and eventually gave us an inner tube to play with (though the valve, poking in to the middle, made it an interesting challenge to dive or jump through).

We discovered that the pool did not have a deep end as such, but merely a deep middle and two shallow ends. It was warm enough to swim vigorously in but for some reason, maybe due to the temperature or altitude or general lack of fitness, this was surprisingly difficult!

But we had amusing fun nonetheless. And experienced a public swimming pool in Nepal. Which is always worth the story - if not the 150 Rupees!

(lane ropes were not installed on our visit)
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Evening Happenings in Lokanthali

Not a huge number of things to do here in the evenings, except resort to using the laptop like now, but we have kept ourselves amused by playing cards (sometimes with more 'players' than people  - it's amusing to see how competently a randomly dealt hand can play against real people...), engaging in all sorts of stimulating debates, reading books, and sleeping (9pm is a good bedtime).


Also trying to eat the twice-daily meal of Dhal Bhat (rice and lentil soup) without any cutlery at all. And making girls cry. I think with laughter... 

However a few evenings have been more exceptional, including the day we ejected a 2m long venemous snake from the compound (we shooed it into the sewer; where it's gone now I have no idea!):

...and another day when we attended a surprisingly good open-air and free entry Nepali rock show, which was actually taking place on the side of the road, so many drivers just stopped their cars in the carriageway to watch:

And we have also visited Rishna Sweets a few times which does the most amazing Jellebi  and other such snacks.

But it's been so relaxing, having little to do and early bedtimes, I wish I could keep this up in the UK. This evening has been much the same - dinner then a card game (Alfie and me taking it in turns to play a variation of Patience, without shuffling the deck, to see if it would converge) and now writing up this blog. It's 21:45 and I feel like I'm late for bed!

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Work Commences

Shortly, dear reader, you will find out why I have not been able to write blog-posts for quite a few days! Mostly due to travelling around Nepal during the Dasain festival, when work stops for all but the most dedicated (or important) workers... such as those in the tourism industry.

But the phrase about 'work stopping' means little unless you know what we've been up to! So here are some photos from our first week of actual work at the school. The skilled labour has been unwell of late, and of course home for Dasain, so we have been mostly working on simple tasks like whitewashing some of the walls which were either a) poorly done in the first place, b) gone less-than-white during the monsoon season or c) have not yet been painted.

Whitewashing is easy! Step 1: mix the paint


Step 2: Apply the paint to the required wall - using roller, paintbrush, brush-on-a-stick, sloshbucket or whatever means are available. No need to mask off the orange stripe - we'll just paint over it later!


Archie (henceforth known as Alfie, because Archie means something like 'turd' in Nepali) and I did most of the messy, less important exterior walls while Nicky prepared her much smoother wall which she will eventually be decorating with murals.

So we kept this up for about 4 days, 5 hours a day, until on Friday we were asked to help build a road outside the school (bordered by our freshly painted walls). Frankly this was a much more fun job and involved lots of heavy lifting and moving around of hardcore and using an adze (always fun). Shortly afterwards, a steamroller turned up and flattened it all for us.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Sightseeing around Kathmandu

We went sightseeing in Kathmandu - first of all to the Swayambhu Nath temple (also called the Monkey temple because... you guessed it). Our reluctant guide for the event was Ramesh, one of the employees at the school here, who took us to see the temple for probably at least the 10th time this year! You'd have thought he would know lots about it then, but he wasn't sharing...


But we did take some photos:


These are prayer wheels, supposedly giving blessings on everyone who spins them. Unsurprisingly there was a constant stream of people spinning them and blessings were being bestowed at an alarming rate.

But the temple itself, a Buddhist monument looking over the whole Kathmandu valley, is an impressive bit of architecture. The story is interesting too. Archie and I found ourselves accidentally hiring a guide (an old chap came along and started telling us about the monument and we thought it best to give him a tip of sorts). The 11-tiered Stupa is supposed to attract enlightenment (or lightning - I might have heard wrong) and there are eyes painted on it, eyes of the Buddha watching over his home country of Nepal.

The views from the monument were also impressive. A flock of birds happened to fly at me at just the right time in this picture, as did Ramesh, Archie and Amy.

More prayer flags and monuments at the car park area. Lots of tat-sellers and beggars too!

A few days later, we ventured into Thamel which is the tourist district of Kathmandu. Touristy it may be but this area has buckets of charm - narrow old streets with pedestrians, motorcyclists, rickshaws, cyclists and Suzuki Alto - type taxis like this one. Every shop space is taken, and many above too, with hiking shops, pashmina shops, music shops, money changers, bookshops and bakeries. And repeat!

This is towards the Durbar Square part of Kathmandu and might (or might not) be the palace where the Living Goddess lives. I don't know - we haven't been to visit her just yet. Apparently she does speak English.


We ventured into Freak Street, the hippy centre of Kathmandu, which looked unimpressively un-hippy-like but we had an excellent and cheap lunch at one of the restaurants there. This was a day of picking up supplies - I found a nice hat to work in - and then we headed over to the bus station to get back to Lokanthali. The bus station, and the ride itself, were both experiences to be remembered!

The bus station:
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Laundry in Nepal

Need I say more?

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Guided Tour

I thought I would post a few photos of the school in which I am working and living right now.

Here's the main compound, or the hostel, where we are sleeping. Each room has a couple of beds and the centre bit is a recreation room where the kids come to sing in the mornings. Here you can see Danny and Archie sitting outside reading in the sun; this is a popular pastime here so Archie and I went out and bought some colourful traditional stools to perch on!

This is the bathroom with, to my delight, a western toilet! The shower is supposed to be heated but it hasn't worked for a week. Showers in the morning are cold but those in the evening are lukewarm. No problem! But the shower unit was taken away today, presumably to try and make it work?

At this school, we have running water, electricity and internet. However we never seem to have all 3 together, and frequently we have only 1! There is a mind-bendingly confusing plumbing system which requires frequent sojourns onto the roof to switch valves over etc. Also the water pump only works when the power is on, which is approximately half the day - auxiliary power is available from 6pm to 10pm and 4am to 6am, so we have another lightbulb in each room connected to this system. The internet, which varies from 1 to 100 kb/s, works most of the time (even when the power is out).

Here is one of the newly-built walls which we will need to paint:

The construction site that we're living in, on the left is the area in which we will soon be digging and building the foundations for the new, permanent canteen building. Also here is the very well-finished school just on the other side of the canteen building where the kids spend most of their time:


The construction side seems mostly finished, though behind the hostel you can see a few walls we are going to need to build and paint.


So this is where I'm going to be living and working! So far, I am very pleased with my decision to stay in the hostel rather than a host family. We get 3 hot meals a day and there is good company here in the form of Danny, Nicky and Archie, along with many others who come and go. Danny runs 3 times a week so Archie and I are now joining him, we do between 4.5 and 6k on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

We also see quite a lot of the Nepali staff and their family; in particular Adi, Arun and Samena (who are the 3 children of Hem, the assistant manager) who have been great company and shown us round their house where some of the other volunteers live. Yesterday was a public holiday so no food was available at the Hostel so we were made very welcome in their home for the 3 meals and a little bit of relaxing in front of their TV. I'll get some photos at some point.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Welcome to Nepal

Getting to the airport from The Sunder was easy enough - the staff summoned a taxi for me and a nice Sikh guy drove me there with plenty of time. In contrast to the hotel guys, who kept bugging me for 'room service tip' (I hadn't used any room service at all) while I was checking out, I was happy to give 150 Rp to the nice taxi driver who seemed very grateful for it! I'm trying not to seem like a tight westerner, but I still believe that tipping should be used to reward service over-and-above the call of duty.

Anyway, Delhi Airport was amazing (boasting 'the only airport in India with 3 operational runways!) and very modern. I had a big breakfast buffet but also had a free meal on the plane, even though it was only a 1h30 flight Eastwards to Kathmandu, but being Jet Airways I should have guessed!

The view for most of the flight was just cloudtops, but once we descended through them, we were greeted with the most stunning view of Nepal and I instantly loved what I saw! Lush valleys, tall mountains and beautiful cumulus, all improved by the clear air. I wish I could have had a window seat in order to enjoy it more!


Thanks Jet Airways for another trouble-free flight.

After going through the visa-on-arrival application process, where I handed over the $100 saved from the USA and the passport photos I had taken in India, I was met outside the airport by a Nepali guy who arranged for a taxi to take me to the school where I would be spending the next 8 weeks. He didn't talk much so I was able to take in the views on the short journey - traffic was similarly chaotic to India, just less busy! Weather seemed perfect at about 24 degrees.

We trundled through some back streets and then I was in the school - it's already in lovely shape but there are some exterior walls that still need building and decorating, at least that much I could surmise from my initial glance round:

At this point I also met the other BUNAC participants in the scheme - these are Amy, Nicky and Archie, all from the SW of England (though Amy is originally from Scotland). Archie and I had arrived that day; Nicky the day before and Amy had already been in Kathmandu for a few days, staying at a hostel in town.

We had a chat and a wander round the school, and we also met Bal the manager of Ideal Friendship Nepal () and also the principal of the school. It turns out that we are at Urbana School, a private pre-school for kids up to 6 years old but funding available for those who need it. It has been built up and improved for a couple of years with the assistance of volunteers from all over the world, and recently in partnership with BUNAC in the UK.

Afterwards, the 4 of us went for a brief wander round the locality. we are in an area called Lokanthali very close to the airport and we hear and see small turbojet airliners (B737s, A320s) and smaller turboprop planes taking off every 10-15 minutes. But this is great for me and the other plane-spotters in the group!

The views remained stunning and our little village has rice paddies all over. Clearly, there is little dependence on importing food from elsewhere in the valley and there were many little shops within walking distance selling local produce and also furniture, snacks, toothpaste and other toiletries.  

When we got back, I set up my bed which came complete with mosquito net (although there is not a big problem in this part of the valley) and we had our first meal together: rice, a tasty vegetable mix, lentil soup (for pouring onto the rice) and a sweet tea that I actually enjoyed eating. It was very tasty and, although I don't think there will be much variety, I was happy with the first impressions :-)

So here I am, settled into my home til early December. This marks a very different segment of my round-the-world travel; I am expecting to have lots more opportunities to relax and also hold down a 25 hours per week 'job' (although there is no pay of course). I'll be updating the blog a bit more sporadically from now on, when internet and electricity and interesting things to write about permit. But this time in Nepal is my own and I will be doing my best to make the most of it, however this happens.

The last 8 weeks of travelling have been absolutely incredible - you need only read a few snippets of my blog to realise this! I've met people and visited places and learnt about cultures that I could only dream about beforehand. The engineering aspects have been so useful to my early career and of course I can thank only the Royal Academy of Engineering and my colleagues at Rolls-Royce for the amazing opportunities in these areas. But I'm now very happy for a pleasant place to settle down, ponder what I've learnt and how I'm going to live my life, and relax just a little bit before I start serious work in January. I'm really lucky to be in Nepal during two of the biggest festivals of the year, so I will be trying to integrate with the local culture as much as possible. But most of all, I want to switch off from the busy world and do some good for other people for just a short period of time. I think it will be really good for me, too.

Wish me luck and I will still share things on occasion :-) And greetings from the year 2069, for that's how the calendar works here!
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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Exploring Agra

As promised, the car turned up at 6:30am at my hotel and I was pleased to see quite a new Tata Indigo and driver (named Sonul) waiting for me. Sonul was a cheery chap with reasonable English, and explained that another Spanish guy had paid to come along to Agra. We went to his hotel but waited for over an hour and a half, calling his mobile and asking the staff to check on his room, but he never turned up. So Sonul and I eventually set off South through the suburbs of Delhi and onto the main road while listening to the hiphop tunes of 'Yo Y Honey Singh'... I learnt a lot about Indian music and also culture on that trip. All very interesting especially the family attitudes etc - Sonul works 7 days a week just so that his only son can have a good education when he grows up (he's just 5). But his son isn't lonely because their family lives in a very extended family, with lots of other children (cousins) for company.

At the border to Uttar Pradesh, we stopped for Sonul to pay the tax. In front we could see another tourist car already being hassled by the tat-sellers and monkey- and snake- charmers who then descended on my car. But Sonul had warned me not to open the windows to them - keen to obey that command, I just shouted 'no thankyou' at them through the window. I'd fended off tat-sellers in the past but none so determined as these!

Shortly afterwards, we stopped for brunch at a touristy restaurant at about the half way point of Delhi and Agra (about 200km between them). A huge and expensive lunch later(about £15), taking over an hour and a half, I rejoined Sonul just as he was about to start looking for me! We had only started driving for about 5 minutes when we came across a car accident, involving another tourist car. A car in front of them had suddenly braked very heavily to avoid a massive pothole and their driver had ended up rear-ending the other car. It was really just a fender-bender but the presence of large amounts of green fluid seemed to spell the end of that particular car's journey. Naturally, a huge crowd formed and my driver stopped to join the discussion. However, my driver could offer something that the others couldn't, and that was an empty car with free seats to Agra.

So with that, I was joined by Dave and Nora, a couple from Ireland (Dublin) and Northern Ireland (Derry) who are currently living in Edinburgh and celebrating their honeymoon in India! But they didn't seem the least bit annoyed to have to share the journey to Agra with yours truly, in fact they were quite relieved to be still going!

We passed a few sights en route, including the Raj Mahal (still under construction, and looking suspiciously like a casino), but mostly just flat farmland and the odd cafe. We also passed another 'accident', this time two lorries who happened to have punctures at the same location and hence blocking the road completely. We had to drive contraflow on the other side of the road to avoid this - but this was a rather ad-hoc arrangement!


Eventually we arrived at Agra, quite clearly a city built up around one major tourist attraction, based on the number of photos and posters we saw showing the Taj. We were then passed on to our guide, called Amar (or something similar) who took us towards the Taj itself through one of the parks which also offered camel taxis. Clearly, judging by the driver's laid-back position (actually reading a book), camels don't need much driving!!

After buying a ticket after all (only 750Rp, £8), we made our way through the West Gate and into the main courtyard. Now here, Amar started his exceptional guided tour, but rather than repeat everything he said, I will just give you a photograph tour of what I thought were the most impressive sites:

This is the main gateway to the Palace and a lovely mix of white marble and red sandstone (which is also the same material as all the walls surrounding the compound - it's quite to build with and easy to replace).

Up close, you can admire the incredible inlay which makes up the Arabic script (part of the Qu'ran) around the whole gate. You also get your first glimpse of the Taj Mahal itself...


...which when it reveals itself, is absolutely stunning! It is more white and more beautiful and more intricate than I could possibly imagine. People might say that knowing what it looks like in advance just spoils the experience. I would fully disagree - seeing it for real makes you realise that it is far more huge and more intricate than you imagined. And there is the joy of seeing for your own eyes what you have seen in photos for your whole life. And this is one of my own photos too - not a stock photo, see the dark splodge in the top left corner?!

But of course you can't see a beautiful mausoleum like this without taking some joke shots. Here are Amar, me and Dave doing the Bollywood pose, and me picking up the Taj (it's not so big after all).


In order to explore the interior, we had to remove our shoes (after all it is a mausoleum) and we went inside to see the tombs of Shah Jahan and his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, for whom it was built after she died in childbirth after giving him 14 children in 19 years. He then spent another 22 years building this monument to her, and of course part of the captivation of the building is the very romantic story!

Inside were some beautiful tombs and, all around, decorations of flowers and scripts inlaid into the white marble in the most exquisite and fine patterns. Amar told us how all the different stones which made up the flowers came from countries as far away as Belgium, China and South Africa, showing how no cost was spared! The marble itself came from a town 300km away and thousands of elephants and camels were conscripted to move it to Agra for the building. But Shah Jahan was a much-loved king so apparently his subjects didn't mind him spending this much tax money on his wife's tomb! Also the 4 minarets surrounding the main mausoleum are actually on a 3 degree tilt away from it - just in case there is an earthquake, they will topple away from the main structure! Impressive engineering for 1655.

We also learnt that the Taj is actually a square building, looking identical from each side. I was blown away by the amazing contrast between beauty on the grand scale and intricacy on the small scale - no other building or work of art I have ever been to is able to satisfy both the macro and the micro scales of perfection.

Alas, even here the westerners cannot avoid having their photos taken! Nora was taken in by this group of Indian ladies...

Looking back towards the main Entrance Gate.

After we had had our fill of the Taj, which actually took quite a few hours while Amar answered all our many questions, he took us back to Sonul and his car and then we found ourselves at a marble workshop, learning for ourselves how the inlay is made. Yes it was a fascinating experience but we all knew what was coming next - being led through the gift shop while being subjected to the 'hard sell' of coffee tables, chess sets and tat-boxes which we were very interested and completely uninterested in!

We then drove quickly through the ancient streets of Agra....

...trying to get to see the Taj at sunset. Sonul really started to speed here, and we had to ask him to slow down after he nearly knocked a kid off his bicycle! But Sonul had been a fantastic driver up to that point so all was forgiven. And we could see why he was rushing, because we got to Sunset Point on the other side of the rive just a little bit too late to see the Taj glow through its full range of colours. D'oh! Why did we spend so much time in the marble shop! But nonetheless we can still say that we saw that Taj at Sunset, and arguably that's what matters more :-)

So we then started the 5 hour drive back to Delhi. Sonul was a star, driving through the night, and we stopped off at a sweet store to grab some treats for his son (which he didn't even let us buy for him!)  and for us to try. I tried napping in the car but the frequent swerves and sharp braking and horn use which is just normal driving in India meant that I couldn't really settle!!

We got back to our hotels just after midnight and said farewell to first Dave and Nora, and then to Sonul, who had earned himself a healthy tip. He had been up and driving for about 16 hours and never complained, probably to do the same again tomorrow, and was kind enough to give Dave and Nora a free ride to and from Agra, of course though he will come to some arrangement with their original driver. Was it worth the extra money? Definitely! So much more excitement, and comfort, than the train (might otherwise have had) - and most importantly, a guarantee that I would get to see the monument I have always wanted to. Nice to meet these other people as well, and of course without their company, my day would have been quite a lot more boring...
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