May 2014.

I've bought a campervan as a 60th birthday present to myself, made some curtains and a patchwork quilt, waved goodbye to my family, and set off. My aim is to explore the coastline of Britain, anti clockwise, starting in Kent. I have no idea what will happen.

Thursday, 23 June 2011


There are thousands of Non-Government Organisations (NGO) in India.  It is one means by which people feel they can make a difference to social issues, healthcare, education, etc.  Faith is an NGO, and the students who helped the children with their computer skills at the technical college are in the process of forming an NGO. So many people are doing their bit to help the poor of India.
I went to a lovely 30th wedding anniversary party of friends of Smriti and Surendra. The couple are doctors – Meeta a pathologist, and Ashok an opthamologist – and most of the guests were doctors too. I met Dilip and Tanuja Chandra there who run a homestay (B&B). He is an architect who is involved with an NGO called Alternative Development Centre, which runs schools for street children.
Yesterday I went to see Dilip and Tanuja and he took me to one of the schools. These children are the poorest of the poor. They live in small slums under fly-overs or on patches of undeveloped land. They might be living there for the long run, or they might be immigrant families who have come in from villages to work on building sites. Many of the adults are addicts of some sort and yesterday the mother of one of the children was very drunk (a very jolly drunk!) and stunk of whatever home-made hooch they drink. But they are very keen for their children to learn and the adorable children were working hard with the chalks and slates.
The children range in age, I would guess, from 4 to 14 – the younger ones in particular were very grubby with matted hair and filthy clothes. One girl, in bright a yellow/green top (bottom left of picture) was married – she is 12. Child marriage is illegal, but it still goes on – the kudos of having a daughter married is still a big thing. The children were learning letters and numbers and stood up and recited nursery rhymes etc for us. The idea is that they should at least learn enough to get by, simple writing, counting money, etc  The problem is that their family might move on to a place with no such school, or a job might come up for them and then they won't come any more.
There are two pairs of teachers funded by Alternative Development Centre and both pairs do two 2-hour sessions each day to cover the four schools. They all sit on mats on the ground and there is a big school trunk which the teachers bring with the pencils, paper, chalks and slates. The children get a good lunch when they have completed their two-hour class.
Who knows what will become of those children as they grow up..  but at least this simple school might give them a better chance than their parents’ had, and enough self-esteem to keep them off the hooch.

It rained hard today.. I am told this is just 'pre-monsoon' but it seemed pretty monsoon-like to me. Despite the fact that everything is floating up through the drains, the air is wonderful after rain...

Jaipur, last Friday

Last Friday I went, with my hotel inspector’s hat on, to see The Raj Palace, a sumptuous hotel on the north side of the old city. I went with Suriendra Singh , who is a cousin of the owner. We were shown around the exquisitely restored Palace by a man in white shirt and black jodhpurs. The 38 rooms and suites are very luxurious and decorated with specially commissioned furniture and artefacts that the owner has collected to reflect life for a royal in the 18 century. The bed-linen comes from Italy and the Maharaja’s Presidential Suite is decorated with gold leaf and has a computer in the bathroom to remember guests’ body temperature so the bath water will be just right for their next visit. The whole refurbishment has been done with incredible attention to detail and though it verges on being over the top, it isn’t. We ate like kings under a dazzling Swarovski chandelier and there were rose petals floating in the fingerbowls.
After dinner the car was waiting in the courtyard, and we set off back into the Jaipur traffic. The town is busy at 11pm, people like to be out when it’s a bit cooler - and the street vendors are busy, the cows eating from the take-away packets on the piles of rubbish (their second stomach has obviously adapted to a diet of rice, a little imported grass, cardboard and carrier bags). As we left the main drag to go down a slip-road, our headlights panned a wide stretch of pavement, and a dormitory of sleepers were silhouetted against the pink structure of the fly-over. Some were lying on the typical low beds with a string mesh base, some slept on the floor and some were sleeping on their bicycle rickshaws. It was only a fleeting glimpse and I am not sure if it is where people live or just somewhere they rest up before a nightshift, but they were certainly having a different evening to the one I had just had
Earlier in the day I had gone with the children to their monthly check-up at the hospital. We went by the No. 6 bus and then walked in a crocodile a short distance, snaking through the traffic to the SMS Hospital. It was 12 noon and stifling hot. We were headed for the ART (AntiRetroviral Treatment) Department and had to pass through A&E – a bloodied motorcyclist was being stretchered out of the back of an ambulance – down a long wide corridor and up a flight of stairs. The floor was covered in rubbish and the walls were "splattered" – the washroom just indescribable. The SMS is the public hospital – ie for the masses and, I am told, they just don’t care or know to treat the place properly. It was built by the last but one Maharaja of Jaipur - and it is the biggest teaching hospital in the state of Rajasthan,  with top research units etc. (and particularly for HIV/ Aids).The doctors were totally professional, and that  is what matters. But I was shocked by the state of the place.  
As always, it’s a question of educating the people – and where to start? People are trying but it’s a monumental task with such a massive underclass in such a vast and expanding population. Bring back my rose-scented finger-bowl.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Journey to Faith

I am staying while in Jaipur with Smriti who runs Faith, the children’s home
where I am volunteering. She lives at Jagatpura which is on the road to
Agra, and her husband, daughter Ambica, 20, and foster-daughter, Krishnangi
who is 12. The journey to the children’s home with Smriti takes only about
10 minutes by car, but for a week Krishnangi and I have been going in
together a bit earlier than usual because the children have had computer
class. We go on a bus every day to a technical college where some students
volunteered to help the children.
Krishnangi bangs on my door at 7.30 to make sure I am ready and I assure her
we don’t need to leave until 8, when I have had my breakfast – tea, a mango
and a small banana. (It’s a mistake to have a heavy breakfast, autos don’t
have much suspension.)
We collect water from the fridge and walk for 10 minutes up to the main road
and along to where the autos wait, under the flyover.  The road is quite
busy and runs alongside a railway line. We pass a man repairing  tyres, a
few shacks selling things, a tethered camel, a stone works, and a water
hydrant where the tractors towing water tanks fill up. It’s a walk of about
1+k. Buses park up under the flyover, there’s a rusty wrecked van where
people congregate and drink *chai*, a vegetable stall and half a dozen autos
waiting for a fare. A few days ago we got a ride with a nice smiling man who
started the auto from the back with a rope like a mowing machine, and now he
waits every morning with his rope, ready to go.  It’s 50rps to the
children’s home because Krishnangi negotiated the fare and she is dark, when
it’s just me I pay a bit more.
I am pretty clear on the route to the children’s home now – I think – but
not so confident getting back from other parts of Jaipur. There are no
street signs that I can fathom, or road markings and I navigate mainly by
the huge advertisements for education that are painted on to walls, the
sides of buildings, the sides of flyovers - with their telephone numbers and
websites. ‘PHYSICS’ black on yellow is where we drop down to the flyover on
the way home and I know I am almost there.
traffic, women sweeping the roads and camels towing building materials,
guiding the auto around potholes big enough to bury a cow in, sleeping
policemen, and piles of rubble.
Soon we are approaching sector 6 Malviya Nager where the children’s home is
- we are on a big dual carriageway and I can see the big glass mirrored Gold
Souk coming up on the left which means we will sneak through the central
reservation and nip over to the inside of the oncoming traffic for the last
100m. Then, level with the Gold Souk, we turn in (ANOOP’S CHEMISTRY and
HOTEL DART), immediately right again, go left and take the second right.
We’re there.
 Education is prized above most things. Sonu, another friendly auto driver
(who speaks good English), says ‘No college, no knowledge. Lovely jubbly!’ I
am not sure what the standard of basic education is like – I would guess not
great, though the children at the home, the ones who read with me, seem
pretty good. Like most things, it’s a question of who gets it.
An American wrote to some friends  trying to describe living in the world’s
largest democracy – of it’s sheer enormity, the haves and the have nots, and
the contrasts in India. If you look at the top 300million people here
(roughly equivalent to the US population) wealth is distributed fairly
similarly to wealth in America. The trouble is that in India, under that
bar, there are 900million more people... It’s a staggering thought.

Saturday, 11 June 2011


I have now been at Faith, the children’s home in Jaipur, for almost a week. There are 16 children and they are a great bunch – 4 girls and 12 boys. Kushal, who is 20 and gave up his job in the hospital to work at Faith, lives there and looks after the children.  And there is a housekeeper (Aunty) from Bengal who has just arrived, and her husband. Everyone else volunteers, two Indian boys today, and a Belgian girl called Pauline who has been here for 4 months and leaves soon. Here is a picture of the children looking at photographs of their holiday in Goa on Smriti's laptop.
All the children are HIV positive except Gotam who has full-blown Aids.  Smriti Singh started the home 6 years ago and she loves and nurtures them all. She is full of hope for the children, and says medicine is improving all the time. Every day when she arrives in the afternoon they all rush out and hug her and touch her feet and she spends 2 or 3 hours talking and laughing with them. They are a very happy and healthy-looking lot. Except Gotam.
She is immensely proud of the children (she says, 'no not proud... pleased’ but I say she should be proud!) because they are doing so well. Most arrived from hospital in a pitiful state, with painful sores and broken skin, and now have just a few scars. One boy has some sort of tumour growing on his neck which is being treated but otherwise the children look unbelievably fit. Gotam is the exception.  I think he is 8 but he is miniscule, he comes up to my waist and his limbs are like sticks.
Smriti has been telling me that everyone must spend time with him because he is much better than he was. He can walk about and sit up, though he spends a lot of time sleeping. And if no one pays attention to him, he gets sick again. The other children are so sweet and play with him and lie down next to him. He is a little Prince.  In April he spent several weeks in hospital with an infection, but he pulled through and is getting stronger. In two weeks I will go with them to the hospital for their medical checks. They have immunity strengthening/anti viral treatment. At the home they have vitamins and some have individual medicines.
Lunch arrives every day in a van from somewhere - here is Aunty doling out dhal.
The house has an open downstairs room with a kitchen behind and also at the back is a bedroom where some of the boys sleep. There is a bathroom off it. The bathrooms aren’t great –they are clean, just basic. I just hope I can wait until I get back to Smriti’s house..
Upstairs there is a room where the girls sleep (and another bathroom), another where the older boys are, and a work room – for homework I think but it’s holidays so I haven’t been in there. There is another flight of stairs which I think is storage and I suppose where Kushal sleeps. There is no garden, just a little bit of yard behind the kitchen, but they talk about the park where they play. It’s just too hot to go there at the moment.
Smriti has a strict duties rota – everyone helps to clean the bathrooms, fold the laundry, put out the mats for lunch, help serve lunch, fill the water for the air cooler. Yesterday extra help was needed because the water in the house ran out. A tractor arrived towing a water tank and hoses had to be hoisted up to the roof and also downstairs through the house to the kitchen.
On Friday and Saturday we did computer class which involved going in a bus to a technical college, arranged through an NGO, for students there to help the children with computer skills. The first day was a bit of a riot, but yesterday we were stricter..! Today is Sunday and a day of rest.

More on Gujerat

This blog is posted from Jaipur, almost a week after I left Gujerat....I  have had trouble getting on line.

The day I went to all the villages was long and tiring – poor Hari the driver looked exhausted when we eventually got to Gondal. I think he’d driven about 320 miles which on these roads is even more arduous than sitting on the M6.
Rajkot, just before Gondal has lots of factories- engineering and electronic - and people flock there for work. At 8.30 pm it was teeming with people buzzing like ants on 2, 3 or 4 wheels, or on foot. When we got to the edge of Gondal we stopped for a few minutes at a railway crossing – great waving, and hoots of laughter at the sight of me from the 15 people in an open autorickshaw alongside us. Then a thump on the window on the other side. Most people tap and look hungry and it breaks your heart, but this was a thump, and a young strong-looking, black-toothed woman in a blue sari asked for money. She is the only person who has ever looked aggressive.. Later I asked Hari was that a man or a woman? and he said ‘Not man, not woman, there are lots of them.’ Hari and I could make ourselves understood well enough, but I didn’t feel we could tackle trans-gender issues, so I left it there.
Me in the salt
Hotels in Gujerat are either ‘Heritage’ which means they are owned,  or have been owned by a Royal or a Rajput and have a bit of history about them (and sometimes rather dodgy plumbing) or they are ‘Business’ which means they are characterless. In rural areas there are ‘Camps’ which means they are little cottages, often round, and there’s  a central office/restaurant. The Orchard Palace at Gondal came under the first category – huge airy rooms, nursery furniture and clanky wardrobes, and perfectly comfortable. The Maharaja lived nearby – the hotel was built for the guests of one of his forebears – and he has an amazing collection of vintage cars. I was shown each one – (Not by him, I missed that one!)
Salt is big business in Gujerat and I went to Little Rann where much of it comes from. Little Rann is nearly 5000sq km of flatland which is an incredible wildlife sanctuary. Importantly it’s home to the Wild Asiatic Ass – there are lots of them but this is the only place they exist.  I was taken there by the manager of the place I stayed in, Rann Riders. Much of the flatland is flooded with water from a borewell and after a couple of months, salt has formed. People go and live out there, working the salt flats, scraping and raking and gathering the salt. They had just left when we went out because the monsoon is on its way and salt production will stop until September.
I had lunch with the Maharaja of Dronghadera, known as Bapa,  about 2 hrs from  Ahmadebad (main city of Gujerat). He lives in a beautiful palace, slightly crumbling. We talked in a spare bedroom because the a/c was most efficient there – part of the zenada where his father’s, or was it has grandfather’s?, wives lived. Bapa read chemistry at Oxford and had great tales to tell. His brother came in briefly to say hello - he is a Professor of Anthropology at a US university and had a group of American students staying in the Palace.  Bapa’s daughter and son in law and their two children live there too and we had a wonderful lunch talking about India and maths and about eating, or not eating, animals.
Driving into Ahmadebad was a bit of a comedown, but arriving through the suburbs of an expanding frenetic city at the end of a long day is never going to be good. The litter is indescribable - plastic bags and cartons mainly - piled up in filthy heaps. Plastic is everywhere in India, filthy old carrier bags all along the roadside, hanging out of trees, it was even caught in the few bushes dotted over Little Rann.
The next day I had a taxi ride/tour to see the town. I started by buying breakfast for a cow. Lots of people do this - 10rps, and it gets the day off to a good start. I visited an amazing 15century mosque, and The Calico and Textile Museum which is absolutely fascinating- said to be the best textile museum in the world. But we weren’t allowed to take water in and the tour lasted nearly 2 hours with no a/c.  I was fearful of swooning into the needlework. It was 43c when we got outside.
I left early this morning for the airport, bound for Jaipur. Some ponies and goats were running frantically the wrong way round a roundabout as my taxi sped through town, pedal to the mettle, leaning on the horn. Hey ho. I arrived safely in Jaipur at lunchtime.

Images from Kutch

The textile painter, the bell-maker, the wood-turner and the embroidery ladies.

Saturday, 4 June 2011


I left Mumbai on Wednesday and have had 3 days in Gujerat. Not enough time - I love it - but I will just have to come back. I have had an a/c car and driver (Hari Singh) which seemed like a bit of an extravagance when I booked it, but I  couldn't have covered the distance any other way, and it has been 43c on occasions, so a/c vital.
I flew in to Bhuj, in the Kutch area in the west - it's flat and dry, known as the wild west - and met Hari and drove down to Mandvi on the coast.There is the most incredible shipbuilding industry in Mandvi - beautiful wooden ships - big boats, one was 153m long - which are mainly sold to the Middle East. Sadly my camera battery ran out as I was walking up the ladder so I can't show you the inside. The beams across are vast timbers -25m? long - which are bought in from Malaysia, otherwise they are made from Indian trees. Then on to the beach where I stayed in a tented camp - a big tent with a/c in  a beautiful resort with miles of beach, see pic.
I can't remember if I have said it enough, but I am here totally out of season, so all the places I have been to are devoid of foreign tourists (Indians have been on holiday, but not so much now) and maintenance work is underway before the monsoon breaks. Then the tourists come in August/September through till March, post rains, with new roofs etc. The beach camp was lovely - comfortable, charming. Beautiful birds flying about and some small antelope scuttling about in the bushes. The only other guest was a character from Evelyn Waugh, a German who had been there for 2 months, working on a power plant nearby, with another 3 to go.
The Royal Palace at Mandvi, is home to the Maharaja of Kutch. A really pretty Palace, built from Jodhpur sandstone in the late 19th century, surrounded by pretty gardens and then scrub and palms and the sea . There isn't much to see inside, if there were riches they have been sold off. Just half a teaset in the dining room cabinet, but it had great charm - faded family photographs and hunting trophies - a stuffed tiger in a glass case -  and shiny colour photographs of the crew of a famous Bollywood film which was made at the Palace. There were signs warning of fines (50rps) for sounding your horn outside, 100rps for spitting and on the way up the steps to the roof there was a sign on the door saying #000 (first figure scrubbed out) for 'opening this door'. It was tempting, for a peep at the Maharaja in his dressing gown, but it could've been expensive. He lives most of the time in Mumbai but was actually 'at home' when we went - his jeep in the courtyard with the royal crest for Kutch, Courage and Confidence.
Then we set off on a tour of all the villages (Kutch is famous for its craftsmen) and saw people doing the most beautiful embroidery, painting, block printing, making bells.. I saw the lot and felt quite panic stricken as everyone pulled out all the cloths and bangles and bells and carvings... but they don't mind - they are such lovely smiley people. The women are so beautiful and colourful and industrious. (I might blog about the craft, it deserves more, but I am tired with scramble-brain after seeing so much.
There is a great feeling of activity and - almost - prosperity. (Gujeratees have a reputation for being industrious and entrepreneural.) Agriculture is big and tractors looked quite new and shiny ploughing up and down the fields - more than can be said for the traffic on the roads..! And they have sophisticated irrigation - a vast canal is being built across the state and there are bore holes which water is pumped from. Considering how mind-blowingly hot it is, trees etc are very green. They grow cotton, corn, millet, bananas, mangos, castor oil, vegetables - and there are even more cowes than before.. and buffalo. Lots of lorries with milk written on the side - they must be refrigerated or the milk would be yoghurt after a couple of miles, but the tankers don't look too hi-tech.
Roads are good in parts too - terrible in others. Vast stretches of new tarmac (no white lines) and a central reservation sometimes but you can drive either side of that..  Often the new road meets the old one with such a step that it throws your insides out and then you are likely to meet a herd of cows/buffalo/sheep walking back from grazing in the fields, and just setting out across the highway (stepping over the central reservation) with a man waving a stick.
(Nicki sent word from Mumbai - it poured with rain the day after I left.)
It can be incredibly difficult to understand what people say, and to be understood. We are all speaking english, but not quite the same english. Hari's english was moderate, and he obviously thought the same of mine. It's annoying because you can miss a lot..
More of Gujerat to follow.