Monthly Archives: October 2007

mysterious girl

Well six countries in as many months and no debilitating diseases as of yet (touch wood), I should be thankful that the worst I’ve suffered in India is a bad cold. Not that this stopped me feeling sorry for myself, however, as I lay feeling weak and snotty in the volunteer house living room reduced to watching our only English movie channel which had such delights as ‘Predator 2′ and ‘Home Alone’, and let’s not forget the chick flick about the mermaid…actually I did rather enjoy that one. By Saturday life had started to return to me again and thankfully I felt sufficiently perked up to leave the confines of the house and went to do exciting things like booking bus tickets for Goa and Hampi over Devali break. Actually I did manage to plough through a good couple of books in my sickness including Adrien Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction which was hilarious, I’d forgotten how funny Sue Townsend is. I’ve also started reading Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder which I remember really loving about nine years ago. I’m finding it a little less enthralling this time round mainly because I find Sophie, the main character self-centered, abrupt, rude and totally uncharismatic. Funny how your perceptions of things will change over the years.

Me looking… was off out on Saturday night and I finally agreed to come as long as we weren’t going anywhere too crazy I should be okay for a few beers. And if you can’t see where this is going then you clearly don’t know me very well. We ventured over the river into Kalyani Nagar to an outside bar restaurant called Soho which was very cool but with a surprisingly large number of white people. It’s amazing how defensive we all get when we spot loads of other non locals, you’d think we had the prestige of being the only ones! We ran into Mike, the guy who runs the Sahara HIV care home, and ended up heading off with him and our Ethiopian student friends to a hip hop party in a nearby hotel bar. I’m amazed there were that many black people in Pune, all students I think, and it ended up being a very late and very entertaining night, lots of dancing and some excellent music…although what Mysterious Girl was doing cropping up in the middle of a hip hop night is beyond me. Peter Andre, for the record, they love you in Pune! We are waiting to be lectured on coming back two hours after curfew. Seriously, I’m 27 years old and I have a curfew…don’t get me started!

Sunday afternoon picnic Sunday was a lazy day, Sophie, Aeysha, Jo and I went for a picnic in the Empress Gardens with our ipod, speakers and lots of cake and biscuits from the Diamond Bakery near our road. Sadly the botanical gardens is currently being slightly refurbished but we found a peaceful spot away from prying eyes and sat down on rugs for food and scrabble.

Painting “Diya” for DivaliToday our fragile internet connection has finally given up the ghost despite my attempts to decode the rather complicated wiring system and everyone is rather vague as to when the engineer might arrive. So I have done all I can in the office and decamped to the internet cafe to access the rest of the big wide world. It really is a worrying sign that without the internet I feel slightly like I’m trying to get things done with only one hand. It’s taking over my life….

bombay mix

Clubbing in Mumbai On Friday evening I had just about recovered for the previous night where a post work business meeting near Koregan park in an unassuming restaurant called Prem somehow got a little out of hand and Ayesha, Lianna and I ended up drinking vast quantities of beer and getting slightly pissed. Those of you more familiar with the drunken Claire will know from experience that my voice does tend to increase ever so slightly in volume after a few drinks. Given that we were sitting in a restaurant of families and couples and that generally India does tend to be more conservative, I think my contributions to the general topics of conversation may have been slightly inappropriate. As also may have been singing Disney songs incredibly loudly all the way home and having to tip the rickshaw driver as Liana jumped out the back as we rounded the corner into our main road and hopped in beside the driver announcing she was driving the rest of the way home as Ayesha and I were impersonating Jordan and Peter Andre singing a Whole New World in the back. Clearly reaching the age of 27 has done wonders for my maturity!

Sunset on Marine DriveAnyway friday night in Deep Griha was the DISHA party for all the DISHA clients (people living with HIV) and their families on the terrace of the Tadiwala Road centre. The kids all did performances of Bollywood dance numbers, sang songs and read out poems (the little ones were so cute) and then we all danced like crazy for an hour on the roof with all the kids. My arms were completely dead by the end from carrying all the kids around whilst trying to be taught Bollywood moves by the younger girls. Good fun though.

CST terminus in MumbaiThis weekend after a Saturday morning partners meeting for Wake Up Pune, four of us, (Ayesha, Sarah, Lianna and I) decided to head off to the coast to the big city and spend the weekend in Mumbai. Love Mumbai, really fantastic town. I think it was the reaction I was expecting when I first arrived in India. Everyone has such strong reactions to the country one way or another but Pune is relatively unstressful and I guess I’d not felt polarised either way. Mumbai, however, I loved. We met up with Ben and Kev, a short and tall comedy double act volunteering with the same organisation as Ayesha and Lianna but they are teaching in a catholic ashram in an old fort an hour from Mumbai. After arriving on Saturday evening we had beers, amazing kebabs from a street stall in Colaba and then went in search of a bar to watch the rugby. Due to the “moral police” all the bars were closing before the game was due to start and by midnight we were starting to wonder if it was worth the fuss. Usually I love the rugby but having been in India during the whole world cup and hearing virtually nothing about anything except cricket I haven’t felt that bothered. We decided sod it and went clubbing instead, which given that England lost, was definitely a good decision. Instead we danced to cheese, rock, bollywood hits and hip hop in a heaving club called Polly Ester drinking suspicious looking shots brought by Ayesha and being taught moves to the recent Bollywood hits by the locals. Continue reading

ten signs that you are a travelling geek

Me the Geek Disturbingly the part of work that I am enjoying the most is creating our posters and brochures for World AIDS Day and playing around with new software, finally my pretensions of being a graphic designer are all coming true! Not to mention all the exciting formulas I have introduced into one of the Nutrition program databases. Finding all this a little worrying I wondered if I’d been displaying any other geek-like behaviour on my travels...

  1. You are completely stumped when an airline issues you an ‘actual’ ticket, surely they did away with those things years ago?
  2. The first thing you ask someone when exchanging contact details is “are you on Facebook”
  3. Not content with just an email address you pass your website and blog address to people you meet
  4. The first thing you do when entering a new country on your travels is update your Places I’ve Been application on facebook
  5. You are completely bewildered when friends at home email to ask what you’ve been up to, surely they’ve been diligently reading your blog every day?
  6. The first thing you do when sitting down in an internet cafe is check for a Skype headset and USB ports
  7. You are carrying more blank DVDs, USB drives and memory cards than pairs of underwear
  8. You major form of communication with your Dad is reading each other’s blogs
  9. You are biased towards booking hostels and guesthouses that are so you don’t actually have to talk to anyone in person
  10. You wonder if maybe you could have backpacked with your laptop after all….

Honestly it’s a wonder that I ever get laid at all…

what colour is your cow?

More cowsIt’s wonderful being constantly confronted with things that make absolutely no apparent sense in this country. For example, how to explain why, on Friday all the cows seem to have mysteriously acquired strange purple patches of paint on their flanks, brightly coloured and shiny horns and in some cases had been entirely covered in the colour yellow. It turns out that last week was the official birthday of the cow and thus a day to go armed with the very best in paint and tin foil strips and make your cow into a work of art!

Painted cow

This weekend I went down to City of Child about an hour outside Pune (another Deep Griha project for orphaned and destitute children from the slums) to get out of the pollution and the smog for two days! The site is lovely and the 47 kids were very entertaining. Boys at City of Child I did a lot of Kung-fu fighting, hide-and-seek, thumb wars and nailed all of the boys in arm wrestles for the weekend. Ian, one of the volunteers, quietly suggested that it might be nice to let them win every so often! I also had my first motorbike lesson on the village cricket ground with Prashant who runs the project with his wife Tina. It’s much harder than it looks, especially since whenever I went to turn my hand automatically pushed up on the acceleration! I also got to experience a whole series of life-evaluating transport options over the weekend courtesy of a trip to Tina and Prashant’s tiny village church. City of Child farmlandThree adults and a two year old on to a motorbike, ancient local bus and shared local jeeps (the equivalent of packing a whole shoal of tuna into a tiny sardine tin whilst travelling at speed down bumpy country roads) – all good fun, I think! Ian, Charlie and I were entertained by the indian-gospel style service conducted by a choir leader who should have been a candidate on Indian Idol for sheer enthusiasm alone and a charismatic pastor who was energetically jumping up and down as he delivered his message in English (for our benefit) pausing dramatically every so often for his side kick to translate into Marathi.

City of Child

He invited us for chai afterwards under the trees which was very relaxing apart from my random changes to subject to deflect questions of my faith or praying habits. I didn’t really want to ruin the relaxed atmosphere of the afternoon by announcing that actually I was an atheist and never went to church.

Last night three of us headed out to Shisha to relax after work and eat something that wasn’t dhal, rice, chapati and cabbage for a change. The food actually at the house and at the office is fine but it tends to be variations on a theme and after two weeks of eating near-identical meals twice a day I was desperate for a change. Shisha is an Iranian restaurant with long bed like seats which double up as chairs and tables to lounge around on, jazz and blues play in the background after after dinner (chicken, beef and vegetable kebabs with stuffed paranthas and biryani salad) you can order shishas to puff away on as you finish your Kingfisher beer. Heaven!

contrasts and confusion

Boy near the officeShopping and Salwars
Pune is definitely a city of contrasts, the old and the new, the wealthy and the poor. On Saturday I tackled the shopping area around Laxmi road in the old part of town which was very much what I expected Pune to look like, a crazy patchwork of shops and services, honking horns, suicidally driven motorbike drivers, tiny streets leading off filled with market stalls and a general atmosphere of colour, noise, smells and chaos. Despite this shopping proved far too easy, after two hours in an air conditioned shop with a huge selection of clothing I emerged with three tailored-on-site salwar kameez for the princely sum of about thirty English pounds, which was fairly expensive by Indian standards but they are all beautiful! Then of course I had to go and buy bangles to match and they are really cheap, plus the guys keep producing all these fantastic colour combinations every time you think you have enough.

Fifteen minutes from Laxmi road I was in one of the more modern parts of Pune in a huge bookshop full of predominantly English novels and non-fiction books and then went to hang out in the German bakery regarding the devotees of the nearby Osho ashram in their maroon robes. In the evening six of us went out to the Ten Downing Street, an old man pub which turns into a nightclub around 10pm (Pune is not a city for night owls) with classic retro tunes and modern pop and a fatal all-you-could-drink-for-300-rupees policy!

City of Contrasts
While crossing the bridge over the river the other day I spotted one of the city’s many giant billboards advertising yet another modern apartment building project complete with a photo of the modern smiling, happy-faced, affluent Indian family. Below the billboard on the bridge three families had constructed makeshift bamboo pole and tarpaulin shacks and were cooking in the cracks in the pavement as their children ran up and down begging for money. And this is Pune, from the student joggers up by the hills in Deccan and middle-aged Labrador walkers, to the half-dressed children grabbing your hand to ask for money along the roads and the forty percent of the population who live in slums.

Ranting about the Rickshaws
Introducing the incomprehensible nature of the tuktuk or rickshaw drivers. Half the time they don’t want to take you where you ask to go, or totally misunderstand the place you direct them to. I have repeated names till I’m blue in the face (the road names are the same in Hindi and English and Marathi I hasten to add) and finally they realize where I want to go and repeat the name exactly as I’ve been saying it for the past five minutes! Then once on the way, they do their level best to drive into every other vehicle on the road through a combination of bloody mindedness and sheer bravado and upon arrival try to miscalculate the metered fare. This is an arbitary number on the meter that you have to multiply by 6 and add 2 to get the actual fare in rupees. Except after 9pm when the meter is abandonned, or they decide to stipulate an extra 10 or 20 rupee charge either because the destination is too close, it’s late, they don’t want to go where you’re headed or just because you’re a foreigner!

Tadiwala Road Slum

The working girl
On Tuesday I spent the morning walking around the Tadiwala Road slum (which is the main area that DISHA works in) with three of the fieldworkers. They all live in the community and their main role, apart from school education programs and workshops, is to identify people they think may be HIV positive or at a high risk from HIV and persuade them to come into the centre for counseling and possible testing. This part alone is the hardest as there is a huge amount of stigma and discrimination against HIV in India. If they are positive then they can subscribe to the nutrition program, receive medical care aimed to help them maintain a healthy lifestyle and post counseling. (Anti-retroviral treatment is not available for the overwhelming majority of India’s HIV positive population.) The slum area around Tadiwala road is not that huge but homes around 30,000 people. Off the main roads are tiny alleyways where self-built houses crowd together as the women wash clothes and pots in-between. Most houses are simply one room with an area for cooking and one or two beds. Anywhere from 4 to 12 people can be living in a space that is no larger than eight foot square. And despite this there is quite a positive feel about the area and a very strong community spirit: children being looked after by neighbours and running down the street to by brightly coloured ice creams cones from the ice cream man. Older women is bright saris joking with fruit sellers as they test the firmness of the melons for sale, goats sleeping in the road next to the parked motorbikes and an impromptu game of cricket going on around a corner.Me and the fieldworkers

I have spent the week beavering away on the computer doing a few updates to the Wake Up Pune website (a program started by DISHA to promote HIV/AIDS awareness in Pune) and finishing a report on Abstinence-only education and HIV Prevention report which has convinced me yet again of the fundamental evil role of the Bush administration in contributing to screwing up the world to further their own agendas.

If anyone is interested in donating to the DISHA program which is part of Deep Griha that would be great, the link is here

a change of pace

I finally arrived in Pune and other than a rescheduling on my original flight time from Delhi to here the whole journey was totally lacking in trauma and I have to confess after all the nightmare stories I heard about Delhi, I wondered what all the fuss was about!

Hanging out in DelhiDue to heavily booked flights I had to pay an extra US$40 for my flight from Kathmandu to Delhi and as a result was travelling business class! I ended up chatting to a very entertaining German girl, Eva, on the plane who had been upgraded and the two of us drank wine and champagne with our meal and chatted throughout the flight. We ended up both taking my prearranged taxi to the Hotel Chand Palace in Delhi and then went out to find the main bazaar area in search of food and more importantly beer. We were in the Paharganj area which is a large local market area stuffed with a higher than usual number of guesthouses, cyber cafes and money exchanges making it the main tourist trap area for the city. However, unlike Thamel in Kathmandu which is very much a tourist toy town this definitely felt slightly more local and a lot more chaotic. We found a nice rooftop restaurant and managed to polish off several beers disguised in white ceramic pitchers before heading to one more bar and drinking with an English guy and Australian girl before heading back to our hotel to crash. So my plans to spend the evening reading and relaxing before my next flight were totally blown out the window and instead I was more than a little tipsy before getting to bed (we sent the busboy out for one more bottle of beer!) and I had less than five hours sleep before I had to get to the airport the next morning.


So now I am working for Deep Griha, a charitable organisation in Pune that works with a whole range of projects from Women’s empowerment, HIV awareness, prevention and care, city orphans and improving the lives and education of people living in the slums. The volunteer house

There are a whole group of volunteers who are living in the ‘house’ presided over by ‘aunty’ a round, smiling, sari draped woman who looks after us all. The other volunteers consist of the Scottish contingent, 7 girls all aged 18-21 (which makes me feel very old indeed!) from a program called Link, Emmanuel the one French guy, an English guy called Dave who is doing some research on banana practices to take back to Kenya (?), my roommate Lucy who is working on street theatre plays and Lianna and Aeysha who are both working on the HIV related side of the projects along with me. My old housemate Claire is also working here for a year or so on education projects. There are rumours of the possible future arrival of five new Frenchmen which have the girls all very exited and I have to say, lovely as everyone is, a slightly more balanced female male ratio would be a good idea! So it’s a little like being a student again except that all our meals are cooked for us (the height of luxury as far as I’m concerned, not to mention the cable TV and the washing machine!), the house is full of cushions, random sofas/beds, books and maps and we have three house dogs who jump and crotch-nuzzle us every time we step outside the house!

The office is about 20 minutes away and situated by the Tadiwalla Road slum in Pune where they offer HIV testing, counselling, nutrition programs, education classes and child care. I’m working on a program called DISHA which is an HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support program. Pune currently has 1.8% of the population infected with HIV which is twice the country average and significantly higher than the 1% rate which WHO considers to be epidemic status. So far Hans, the project coordinator, has been wonderfully vague on what I’m actually going to be doing but everyone else assures me this is totally normal. So far I’ve been doing research on 3 minute HIV tests, HIV work policies and abstinence-only HIV programs in various African countries for a couple of reports I’ve been asked to write. Thank god for the internet is all I can say – how on earth did people ever research this kind of stuff without it!

Indian classical dance Dance2Hopefully this weekend I am going to have a chance to explore around Pune a little more although so far I have been to a classical dance show in the open air gardens of Ajakhan palace for Gandi’s birthday was really interesting with some wonderful music. This morning Lianna and I attended a rather entertaining yoga session. This very brusque older woman running the session barked out orders throughout, quickly pointing out anyone who wasn’t doing things quite right! Needless to say, I am not nearly as flexible as I’d liked to be so I’m going to try and persevere!

into the breach

Nepalese flagWell the time has come to say farewell to my beloved Nepal, Pheri phetong la (see you again soon). Goodbye to the country that made me take leave of my senses and jump off a 160m suspension bridge, the country that has thrilled me with rapids, intrigued me with festivals, history, religion and temples, captivated the eye with hillsides, rice paddies, mountains, elephants and rhinos, and horrified with road traffic laws (or absence thereof). I am leaving this fairly relaxed, laid-back asian country for the thrills, trials and challenges of the huge more-than-a-billion-people diversity of India…wish me luck!