Saturday, 12 January 2013

The God of Small-Rishikesh-Sized Things.

Congratulations if you got the reference in this post title - the publishers, 'Penguin India', are celebrating their 25th birthday this year, and so reprinted 25 of the 'best' Indian books. I read 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy which won the Booker Prize in '97, in Rishikesh and it gave me such a great taste of India. Although it's set in the south, it cemented me to where I was then and there. The assaults on the senses he describes were the same assaults I was experiencing, and that's my absolute favourite thing about reading travel books about the place you're in. You may never understand the author's feelings and descriptions as much as you do when reading 'Eat, Pray, Love' whilst in India or, 'Notes from a Big Country' when in North America.

Anyway, I am digressing from the point of this post which is catching you up on India so far.

This weekend we took a weekend off from playing with the World's Cutest Children to visit Rishikesh, a town a few hours drive from our local town Mussoorie, made famous in the 1960s by the Beatles christening it 'Yoga Capital of the World'. Knowing little of the geography of the North of India (Flo, do correct me if I'm wrong here!), we were both gobsmacked when, when driving up and over the local Elephant forest (in which resides the 'Killer Elephant' - don't ask), we spotted a slither of water expanding before us. The Ganges.


Our accomodation, costing us a mere 400 rupees each for two nights (around £4), was complete with running hot water - a luxury I can assure you, and a hammock each was basic and unbeatable. The Hilltop Swiss Cottage was perfect, and packed to the brim with western hippies and travellers alike. It offers a beautiful array of gardens (complete with fairy lights and some of the best Chai you'll find!) and full body massages, 75 minutes long, for just £5 each. And don't worry, there was no, ahem, funny business. I'm pretty sure the experience was legit...even the powercut halfway through...

In the evening (every evening) the Ganges Aarti is celebrated in Rishikesh, which is a ceremony organised and run by the local Ashram residents as opposed to a more 'theatrical' Pundit as other ceremonies are. While it is ever-so-slightly overrun with tourists and tour groups, it is still a particularly spiritual experience. Both Flo and I let our garland float down stream, without capsizing I hasten to add, and it was a wonderful experience to see the sun set just beyond our reach.

Among this, we played many a travel scrabble game, drank street Chai, read, and even partook in a very non-legit seeming Yoga class for £1.50. Needless to say, the week-long ache that followed was definitely not worth the small amount we paid. On the Monday we returned to Sainji which, oddly, felt much like coming home. We were welcomed back today to sunshine and cool mountain air, and I wouldn't have rather been anywhere else.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

"Sainji Welcomes You Whole Heartedly"

The main 'point' of my time in India is to volunteer in a school with Flo in a tiny village nestled beautifully in the foothills of the Himalayas called "Sainji" - and we arrived this morning. This village could not have been further away from home, and truth be told I could not have fallen any more in love with it than I did. The houses were all painted a wide array of colours that shined in the sunshine, and irrigation ditches from the fields ran parallel to the cupboard like streets between the houses and rooms. The terraced fields carved their way into the mountainside and walking into the village, complete with corn hanging from every veranda and the friendliest villagers you've ever met, it felt almost unreal.

That there could be such a pocket of time and Garwahli culture in such a fantastic place. Flo and I have a lovely room to share with intermittent electricity and heating which we adored, provided by Lori and Kunwar - our contact in the village through a teacher at our high school. Their hospitality cannot be praised enough and I am still so thankful that we are having such a 'real' experience - complete with 3 day long powercuts and Himalayan storms. The weather is surprisingly cold (I say surprisingly only because I stupidly bypassed the fact that we were going to, you know, the Himalayas, and packed mostly summer clothes...) but with beautiful sunshine, and every morning waking up to this view is just such a tragedy...

The view from our veranda. I couldn't relish the fact that this is where we brush our teeth more.
Point proven.
Sainji has a population of 400, with almost half of the village living under the poverty line. Despite all the fantastic work that has been poured into the village, a few of the houses still don't have adequate sanitation. Our time in the village has already been a real eye-opener, especially as we were working so closely with the kids of Sainji and the surrounding villages at the GEMs school where we taught.

It wasn't experiencing India and retreating into luxury or our western lives, for me it was living and working in Sainji as I would have liked. And the experience has been just invaluable, I wish my words could do it justice. Farming was the main income of the village, and the hand-to-mouth existence of growing and consuming your own crops, I found particularly interesting and contrasting to home as it's not something I experience. You need flour? Go to Tescos and buy it, of course! But in Sainji, if you needed flour then grow corn, dry it out for a long period of time, grind it, and then you have flour! (And yummy flour at that...)

Our room, complete with books and biscuits galore! The combination of these and my headtorch meant that even the longest powercut could still be enjoyable.
The village temples (2/3 of them)

Cricket was a huge huge huge hit among the kids at GEMs and the villagers themselves, and shamefully, I came back from India still not understanding the rules, and still not being able to play...

Whilst in Sainji, Flo and I both have taken full advantage of the inexpense of tailoring and material, and while I got a simple Kurta suit tailored, Flo chose to have the Garwahli traditional dress tailored, which she looked beautiful in! Having babysat her Gargara for a few weeks I am very the older women of the village loved it! Sainji is already an excellent experience, I cannot do it justice - it was just perfect. Fun. Relaxing. And beautiful.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Where Can I Start? (Delhi Would Be Good)

Pre-India (chirpiness hiding the terror)
So, I've had a few lovely people ask me when I was planning on updating my Gap Year blog post-India, and truth be told I hadn't intended to keep it up to date what with my lack of internet and paint to watch dry...but I am now left with a week to go before Denmark and I've hardly given myself time to think about India! I arrived home on the 19th February, having left murky England on the 6th January and am updating my blog in Real Time due to having kept my notebook going in order to inform my blog properly!

Truth be told I'd done my reading before landing in Delhi- I'd bought almost every Lonely Planet guide under the sun, I'd read every Foreign Commonwealth Office piece of scare-mongering advice, and I'd tried my hardest to read travel magazines articles and books to prepare myself for my trip. Looking back, I can honestly say that nothing can prepare you for the shock to the system which is India. One article read, "India is not a's an experience" and I don't think I could have put it any better.

While setting off through the Heathrow departure gate for the second time wasn't nearly as daunting as the first, my thoughts were scattered as we came in over India. "Wait what why am I here?! What was I thinking?!" and yet, as soon as my plane touched down, I knew I'd made the right decision. I've been in Delhi for 24 hours and tonight we're heading on the overnight train to Dehra Dun, were seen through rose tinted glasses. I have ignored the rubbish, the cold (coldest Winter for 42 years!) and the sheer populous and saw only the fruit stalls piled high with the most inticing stacks of exotic fruits, the women clothed in the most intricately embroided Saris and frock suits, and the cows that chose to have a nice sit down in the middle of the dual carriageway. The cars stacked 4 across in a two lane road, the tuck-tucks weaving in and out snarling at the stationary drivers, and the shouting, the singing, the sheer noise of...India. Within 30 minutes of getting lost with my travelling partner Flo in the centre of the Main Bazaar, forgetting our hotel's name, and ignoring all the key advice we'd been given about 'personal safety' (why not share a cab with a stranger if it's half the price..?), I am in love.

Delhi - complete with Tuck-tuck (the yellow/green cart in the corner)

Lotus Temple

A tiny glimpse of Connaught Place!
In our short 48 hours in Delhi we have trusted my Lonely Planet guide and followed it blindly, finding ourselves in the Main Bazaar, Connaught Place, the Lotus Temple in outer Old Delhi, and Hauz Khas village complete with Fort ruins. Our real adventure in Sainji is about to begin as the train is pulling into Dehra Dun, wish us luck!