Field Trip to Kherwara

An early morning start.  Pick up at 6:45am for the 10 minute drive to Seva Mandir’s office to join the bus which would take us on our first field trip of this visit.  We are excited: field trips always exceed expectations and introduce us to some of the remoter parts of southern Rajasthan, areas we would otherwise almost certainly not visit.  Needless to say, we are amongst the few early birds and able to stake our claim to front seats on the venerable bus which radiates experience.  The announced departure time of 7:15 is both indicative and aspirational.  We are on our way with 15 or so of the Seva Mandir Natural Resource Development team by 7:45 to cross Udaipur from north to south through the early morning traffic, stopping first for fuel and then further members of the team along the way.  It’s reminiscent of school bus trips with laughter and jollity as new members of the team climb aboard.

As we head out of the town on the main highway which leads to Mumbai, the Aravalli Hills are once again our guide.  Our front row seats afford a clear view.

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After a little less than an hour, we turn across the highway and head down a rural road and back in time

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to Kherwara, a beautiful area surrounded by the Aravalli hills, with fields green after the monsoon, wandering goats and cows, and the occasional mud-walled house

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where morning washing

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and other domestic chores are underway.

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We are also struck by the cactus hedges: very practical when you think about it.

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The field trip is beginning in earnest.

One key area of Seva Mandir’s work is Natural Resource Development.  In this rural, semi-arid region such as southern Rajasthan, the rain falls only during a short period of the year in the monsoon, and the sun beats down relentlessly for long months on impoverished soil.  Local, mainly subsistence, farmers scratch a living from a few fields

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and, if they are lucky, a handful of cows and goats that might bring them a monthly income of Rs 600 (around £6 or $10).  It is therefore vital to make the best use of what water there is.

The NRD unit has many programmes in this area: watershed projects to ensure that the heavy rains, when they come, do not further degrade what soil there is,

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but the water is collected in the most efficient way; water harvesting, including creating and maintaining dams,

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and improving wells.  We pass several lakes filled by the monsoon but soon realise that it will probably not rain here again until next July.

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Measuring the results of such projects is important for Seva Mandir and its donors.  To ensure that data collection is reliable and consistent, systems have been devised to help the field teams carry out their measurements in a uniform and simple way throughout the areas covered.

The field trip which we have been invited to join involves 20 or so members of the NRD unit, from HQ in Udaipur and from some of the blocks further afield, and is designed to show the teams how to collect data and monitor the results of the various projects.

Our base for the day was the zone office in Kojawara, which houses a medical centre with permanent nursing staff and visiting doctors who give clinics on a number of days during the week.  There are wards for inpatients,

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but these are not in use at the moment.  The major problem faced by the centre is finding and retaining resident doctors.  A relatively remote rural area like this struggles to attract doctors, and those who might be interested are unaffordable.  It nevertheless provides a dispensary and delivers much needed and valued basic care and was clearly being used by the locals when we visited.

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After a light breakfast, armed with two specially-made metal frames measuring 1m2 (instantly recognised by Felicia – all those years listening to the Archers clearly well spent!), we set off to a field on a hill where watershed work had been carried out a couple of years ago.   This involved building a low wall to keep cattle out and planting grains.

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The team leader, Shailendra Tiwari, Head of NRD, and his team of experts, explained the process of taking samples of crop growth to monitor results.

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They marched up to the top of the hill to survey the field in question, divided it virtually into five areas representative of the field as a whole (taking poorer areas and areas of better growth), and proceeded to take a sample of the growth in each of these five areas.  The metal frames were placed on the ground

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and the plants within this square metre cut and weighed.

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The results were noted down and an average for the field calculated.  This information will allow the team to see whether the work of creating check dams and watershed trenches has improved the yield of the area.

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It was hot work and we have to admit to not going all the way to the top of the hill but seeking out the shade of a bamboo grove

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where we were entertained by one of the team members who delighted in telling us that he and his wife had four children all of whom had married and flown the family nest.  He beamed as he held the backs of his hands towards us, fingers pointing down and flipped his fingers upwards to simulate the flight of the siblings from the house.  Now he and his wife enjoyed peace and cooking for two.  On hearing that we had three children and one married, our host, with flashing dark eyes, emitted a huge giggle.

The next exercise was inspecting and measuring wells on the plain.

There are five wells within this watershed unit of 500 Hectares, and, once again, keeping accurate measurements of the water in the wells has proved challenging.  Shailendra explained that there was no need to measure the depth of the wells – obviously a difficult job.  The best way was to find a fixed point which could be marked and used every time, and to measure the drop to the level of the water.   The measuring would be done twice a year, before and after the rains.

This area also contains a camp where cattle are vaccinated twice a year, in an effort to reduce Foot and Mouth Disease and Goat Disease, which the team visited.  While the team accompanied by the intrepid Felicia headed down a steep slope,

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John, who had a slightly stiff ankle, stayed with our host to explore the evidence of successful planting projects along the road as it started to climb between the hills

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and then engage in interpreted conversation with a local goatherd and his wife who tended the cattle.  A charming couple who were clearly appreciative of the work done by Seva Mandir.  The wife, who was in the meadow below the road, clutched an old umbrella in her right hand as she hurried after one stray and then another, even though it was not apparent that they could have gone far.  Looking up to the road where we were discussing with her husband, she realised that, whilst in the semi shade, we would benefit from the umbrella and hurried up the steep path to offer it.  Apart from being extremely grateful for the shade, I realised that the quality of the light under the umbrella would be far more flattering for portraits than the harsh late-morning sun.  The goatherd and his wife duly posed for photographs

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before an errant cow hastened the return of the wife to the meadow. They, by the way, had two children, both of whom had married!  More giggles from our host.

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There followed a village meeting at the house of one of the villagers.  While we waited for the meeting we were invited to relax on a charpoy (string couch)

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in the shady garden surrounded by neem trees, marigolds (which a canny goat was surreptitiously trying to graze on before he was spotted and ushered out by the woman of the house) and drying chillies.  The presence of two unexpected foreign visitors was explained and we were made welcome, and proceedings began.

This village benefits from several of Seva Mandir’s activities: an immunization camp for pregnant women and their children, a Women’s Self-Help Group, a Joint Forest Management project, a Balwadi (children’s day care centre), a team of Balsakhis (who monitor and advise on child health and care), and a lift well.  It also boasts a Farmers’ Club (which has 1.2 Lakh Rupees, approx. £1,200, in its bank account and attracts a subsidy from the government).  The meeting was intended to monitor the effect of Seva Mandir’s work on village life and to give the farmers and their wives a chance to air their views.

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The farmers said that the water levels had certainly increased since the watershed project and they were pleased with the harvest of 1.5 quintals (150 kg) of rice, which was an improvement on previous harvests.  The villagers are now self-sufficient in grass and grains, which saves them the money they would otherwise have to spend on buying these in.

They have an area of 50 Hectares in common forest land, divided into three sites, and have qualified for Joint Forest Management, a scheme which allows the villagers, alongside the government Forestry Department, to look after their forest land, protecting it from fire, grazing and illegal encroachment, and to enjoy the benefits of the forest land and its products.  But they would like to achieve Community Forest Rights, which would allow them to manage the forest land themselves as provided for in Indian law but in practice extremely hard to win.   Seva Mandir continues to help the villagers try to win these rights.

The villagers also reiterated their desire to see Ecosan toilets installed, and were promised that a visit to another village was being arranged to allow them to inspect the Ecosans there.  The government will not provide these toilets (which use no water but instead use ash to convert solid waste into odourless manure) but Seva Mandir is a major provider of these throughout southern Rajasthan.

These hospitable villagers then thanked us again for our visit and warmly bade us farewell.

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Just time for a quick visit to an area which had been wasteland until recently but which, with Seva Mandir’s help, had now been planted with fruit trees (mango, amla, guava, papaya, lime) and also tomatoes, chillies and aubergines.

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A lovely spot, bursting with fresh produce, and clearly giving a good yield to its owner, a woman farmer.

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After a delicious and well earned late lunch (after all that climbing up steep slopes), the NRD team sat down to a meeting to discuss the day’s events

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and to plan its next field trip, which would include water harvesting projects (how to monitor water levels in anicut dams, assess leakage, monsoon damage, silting and the use made of the water), sanitation and safe drinking water projects and lift irrigation (where water is pumped up to higher ground from a well, enabling previously uncultivated land to bear crops).

The block officials then said goodbye as they headed back to their block offices in other parts of southern Rajasthan, and the HQ team piled back onto our bus

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for the drive back to Udaipur.  It was by now late afternoon and the sun was sending warms rays across the countryside.

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As the driver expertly guided the old Tata vehicle through the traffic (with a steering wheel with so much play that he was in constant motion with his arms and we wondered how he could possibly manoeuvre it so skilfully), and the NRD team laughed and joked all the way, we reflected on what a dedicated and skilled team of people this is, toiling away to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world and to make sure that their work is bearing fruit.

On the Road in India

I remember being told once that Italians view the white lines marking lanes on the roads and motorways as mere suggestions as to how they might like to use the space.  Indians have taken this concept of flexibility to an entirely different plane.  There are roads in towns and highways in the country areas that have carriageways divided by barriers, but any driver who allows that to lull him or her into a sense of security is dicing with death.  Dual-carriage highways are in theory (I think) for one-way traffic on each side, but if a driver (of a bus, a truck, a car, a motorbike or a camel or ox cart) has to get from A to B where the closest distance between the two involves going the wrong way down one of these carriageways he won’t hesitate.  So you will suddenly find one or a whole stream of them coming towards you in what you thought was the slow lane on your side.

In Tamil Nadu once, we were just admiring the brand new highway when we spotted an unexpected obstacle in the fast lane.  A farmer with a cunning plan had decided that a nice hot road was just the place to dry his grain.  So a tarpaulin on the tarmac, a few stones to keep it from blowing away, et voilà!  Sometimes on rural roads the plan is even more cunning.  Grain laid out on the road will be run over, doing the job of separating the chaff from the grain very easily indeed.

If you need to get off the highway onto a minor road to your right, you may well find that the only way across is to mount the central reservation (which will have been broken down – a bit – by others with the same mission) and drive for a few yards down the other carriageway until you can turn off.  Best to shut your eyes if you are of a nervous disposition.

The same is true in the towns.  One of our most terrifying journeys was in a cycle rickshaw (whose drivers are always the scrawniest souls around so that you feel hideously guilty accepting a ride from them) taking us from the Red Fort in Old Delhi to our vehicle, whose driver had parked further away.  The cycle rickshaw man headed down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, weaving between oncoming trucks and buses, and I have never been so afraid of imminent death in my life.

Many a time our driver here in Udaipur, realising that we need to go to a store on the other side of a crowded shopping street, has gone several yards down the road on the wrong side so as to deposit us right outside our shop.  When pulling away again, he will simply push into the traffic, into the path of oncoming tuktuks, bikes, cars etc, and make his way unhurriedly onto the right side of the road again.  This is entirely par for the course.

The other evening bringing us home he suddenly stopped as a young man riding a motorbike headed towards us on our side of a road divided by a concrete barrier, failed to control his vehicle (remarkably unusual) and clipped the front of our car.  Much consternation, the driver leaps out and harangues the sheepish young man, a crowd immediately gathers, a nearby policeman’s view is sought.  We stay in the car, thinking for the thousandth time that we will NEVER venture out behind the wheel here.  After much rather unproductive conversation, during which time the young man returns and surreptitiously wipes down the scratched bumper with a cloth, hoping to make the damage go away, our driver returns.  The young man has no money and no insurance, so beyond a bawling out there is not much to be done.  We ask what the policeman said – nothing much other than that our driver was in the right.

The only surprise is that there are so few collisions.  Indian drivers seem to know how far they can push in front of others, and our driver clearly had a sixth sense that, for once, this bike was not going to manoeuvre in time out of his way.

Police there are on the roads in town: rarely if ever singly, and generally in groups of 2-4, always to be found standing chatting to one another, their backs to anything they might actually be called upon to deal with.

Indian drivers love to ask you what are the three things a driver here needs: good brakes, good horn and good luck!  Horns are regarded as essential.  Almost every truck has ‘Horn Please’ (as well as the somewhat mysterious ‘Wait for Side’) on the back of them.  On the highways they drive in whichever lane they fancy (generally the ‘fast’ lane, for reasons perhaps explained above) so a speedier vehicle has to weave between them, the horn blaring repeatedly to try to ensure the driver has spotted it.  In town too, as one approaches a roundabout the tactic seems to be to drive straight onto it (Belgian style), horn blaring, as you play chicken with the other vehicles.  Of course you might decide that, if a big old bus is coming towards you with no obvious intention of stopping, discretion is the better part of valour.  But a mere car, bike or cart is simply to be honked at as you push in front showing you mean business.

The variety of the road users is something that takes a while to get used to.  I remember on our first trip to Jaipur some years ago, on a very busy main street, seeing a mouse crossing the road between trucks, cars, buses, scooters, elephants, camel carts, ox carts and pedestrians.  I thought it would never make it, but it was obviously a city mouse, much more skilled in braving these streets than I will ever be.

Some of the sights cannot fail to bring a smile to my face.  Today I saw a camel, snooty-looking with its nose in the air as always, pulling a flat-bed cart topped by an advertising hoarding forming a pyramid beneath which was a cassette player blaring out promotional messages.  Years ago, as we drove from Ranthambore and tiger-spotting towards Jaipur, we passed an empty petrol station where a camel had pulled up beside a petrol pump – perhaps to fill up a jerry can, who knows.  I always wish I had asked the driver to back up so John could capture the image with his camera.

Elephants are fairly common, sometimes carrying produce, sometimes wandering back home from duty trundling tourists up to a fort as at Amber near Jaipur, sometimes just carrying a mahout who is taking it to collect tributes at a temple in exchange for a ‘blessing’ from the elephant’s trunk.  (I once had to pay extra to get a second blessing as the camera wasn’t quick enough first time – no names! – and was dimly viewed by others in the queue!)  And I remember looking up from a major road in Delhi to see a couple of elephants carrying grasses crossing the bridge above us.

Camels are common too in Rajasthan.  They are often pulling carts carrying goods of one sort or another.  Donkeys are trained here to carry building materials from yard to building site without supervision.  You see them, sad little creatures, heading forlornly along the road, loaded up with bricks going one way, running a little faster on the way back, but never daring to deviate from the route.

Horses, particularly white, are hired out for ceremonies such as taking a groom to his wedding in procession with drummers and family members, and we sometimes pass stables full of surprisingly fine-looking beasts, their little ears endearingly turned inwards in true Marwari style.

Cows of course do their own thing.  They wander through the towns finding strange things to eat, before heading at dusk to be milked in a dairy which might well be in someone’s front room in the maze of backstreets of the old town, as John has described earlier.  There are ladies on the outskirts of town who sit with bundles of grass which they sell to passers-by who wish to placate their gods by feeding the cows.  One or two cows have worked out that this is a good place to hang around!   At night, they often lie down on the unlit roads, so that you have to pick your way very carefully around them.  Some of them respond to toots on the horn, some do not and have to be slapped on the rump or pushed out of the way.

One morning in Bikaner, on our way to a temple, the guide pointed out a line of dogs standing on the side of the road all looking in one direction.  There the locals would bring spare chapattis left over from breakfast and throw them at the waiting hounds, again to curry favour with the deities.

The saving grace amongst all of this chaos, as it appears to a western eye, is that the speeds are generally low.  Most of the trucks and cars do not look as if they were ever new, and buying a spanking new vehicle of any sort seems little short of folly.  One evening we came out of a restaurant in Delhi which clearly turned into a hot nightclub once the wrinklies had eaten and departed.  Hordes of well-heeled youths were hanging about waiting for the nightclub to get into gear, and as we walked outside my eyes nearly popped out of my head to see ranks of Ferraris, Porsches and Maseratis lined up.  Where do they drive these cars?  Do they just sit in garages and have one trip out every Friday night?

As India ponders the value of its Grand Prix, I wonder about its relevance to 99.9% of the road users in the country.

The Markets around Delhi Gate

Rajasthan is known for the colourful attire of its inhabitants (some say that the more arid the state, the more rainbow-like the clothing) and, as in India as a whole, the vitality and character of its markets and market people.  Two of our favorites are the fruit and vegetable and spice markets of old Udaipur and surrounding streets, with hundreds of small but specialist retail shops, which are to be found close to Delhi Gate, and Bapu Bazar.  On Tuesday afternoon, we managed to escape from the rigours of equipping the house to indulge ourselves in one of our favourite pursuits.

With just a few words, we let the images paint the picture .

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An India of contrasts and striking juxtapositions

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A sadhu brings his elephant to the market, to the awe and delight of schoolboys well aware of the divinity of Ganesh, the elephant god.

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A few Rupees, put into the elephant’s trunk and passed up to the sadhu, ensure a good reception for the photographer.

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The market women sit on the ground surrounded by their produce. The market opens at around 10 am and goes through to after dark.

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We have been coming to this market since we visited Udaipur on our first trip to India in 2003. Over the years and a few photos here and there(!), a number of the market women now recognise us and will readily pose for photos; always we try to return with copies for them. Some are more reluctant.

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This woman, for example, was keen to have a photo with her bright-eyed young child. John took several on a trip in 2011 and tried to give her prints last year but she was not there. This time, she recognised us and asked to be photographed again. When we returned yesterday, armed not only with the most recent print (above) but also several from 2011, while other women received only one or worse still none, the decibels rose and Felicia feared that John was about to be lynched. Needless to say, John was customarily oblivious – just as well!

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Snacks made from batter poured through a sieve into hot fat

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Basket weavers in one of the small side streets

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Brightly coloured spices

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and pulses

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and just about anything else you might fancy

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Felicia buying supper

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Time for a freshly-squeezed juice

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Indians have a very sweet tooth!

Our lovely friend from Udaipur, Deepti, who is in England this year doing a master’s in Development Studies, told us that the fruit and vegetable market is her favourite too; her parents brought her to it when she was young and she was able to select the fruit and vegetables herself.

Another contact here , Paradhi, a keen photographer, told us that she had seen a Facebook posting of the photo of Felicia purchasing vegetables in the market  (above); she said that she had never thought of taking photos of the market — for everyone here it is just normal!  Of course, but it is this ‘normality’ which makes India such a wonderful place to visit.  One man’s normality is another’s adventure.

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We’ve been giving thought to a more permanent means of transport, having used the excellent services of a local taxi firm with a very helpful driver, Pakash, who has taken us under his wing. This smart model caught our eye …

The Floods after Hurricane Phailin

In our last post of the India at Large series, we commented briefly on local media reports of the action taken by state governments and other bodies to protect hundreds of thousands of people threatened by hurricane Phailin and pointed to the political angle in the light of the elections next year.  Interestingly, the television reports which we saw on Sunday did not focus on the extent of the flooding caused by the hurricane.  On the other hand, it would appear that international reporting was already highlighting the damage and human suffering for which the floods were, and continue to be, responsible.  That said, we obviously had not surveyed a wide cross-section of India’s media.  During the week, we have followed developments in the Times of India and thought it might be of interest to share a few excerpts.

On Wednesday, the Times of India (TOI) reported on the flooding and statements by those in authority:

‘ “Flood water has started receding and we hope by Wednesday it will show signs of improvement,” special relief commissioner Pradipta Mohapatra told TOI. ( … )

As thousands of marooned people cried for food, the state with central agencies like National Disaster Response Force, Army and Navy, stepped up relief and rescue operations. Though the government said it had reached out to all villages, people complained relief was still trickling in. “We are not getting any food,” said Shyam Tudu, a flood victim in Mayurbhanj.

Mohapatra said: “ ( … ) Three IAF helicopters will continue airdropping food things in the quickest possible time. We hope to ensure relief reaches everywhere by Wednesday evening“.

Revenue minister S N Patro said although the situation in some worst-hit areas continued to remain grim, things were “under control”.

On Thursday, TOI reported:

‘Authorities in India’s Orissa state are intensifying efforts to provide relief to some 12 million people affected by a cyclone and subsequent floods.

Cyclone Phailin, the strongest storm to hit the state in 14 years, flattened homes, uprooted trees and blocked roads in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states.  Subsequent flooding has left 100,000 people stranded in parts of Orissa.  Officials said the cyclone and the floods had together damaged over 300,000 homes in 16,487 villages in Orissa.

Senior official Krishan Kumar told the Press Trust of India news agency that Ganjam was the worst-affected district. More than 240,000 houses had been damaged, power lines had snapped and nets, boats and fishing catamarans had been destroyed, he said.  ( … )

Orissa Chief Minister Navin Patnaik said the government was ensuring “that relief materials, food, polythene, medical supplies and kerosene reach the affected people“.

Separately, Indian [Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh has announced compensation of 200,000 rupees ($3,234; £2,028) for the family of each person killed in the cyclone and 50,000 rupees for those seriously injured.  ( … )

The death toll in Cyclone Phailin remained low because of a successful evacuation effort described by officials as “the biggest in India’s history for such an event“.  ( … )

But the intense storm has made more than half a million people homeless, state government officials said.’

We visited Orissa and the coastline of the Bay of Bengal about a year ago.  It is a beautiful region with an incredible history and cultural and religious heritage.  It is not on the regular tourist itineraries but deserves to be.  Its welcoming and charming citizens certainly deserve support from all quarters now.

Settling In

Shopping

On our previous six trips to India shopping has generally been of a predictable nature – popping into the wonderful Fabindia to buy a series of brightly coloured salwar kameez (or rather kurta and pajama or churidar in Hindi), and long scarves (dupatta), my usual garb when here, or looking for presents to take home – bags, scarves, cushion covers, silver jewellery and so forth.

Shopping for shoes

This time of course it is different.

The first task was to equip our house with the basics: pots and pans, cleaning equipment, all the things you take for granted until you have to start from scratch.  As a tourist one is not aware of the supermarkets and malls (and we have been incensed at the suggestions helpfully made to us on the streets of Delhi that we might like to visit a mall rather than the individual shops we prefer), but for bulk buying of household goods it makes sense to head to a hypermarket.

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Just getting in is the first challenge.  After going through the body scanner, one has to present bags at a desk and have the zips fastened with plastic tags to prevent one slipping goods into them.  We then grab a trolley and start the hunt.  We are astounded by the variety (and low price) of many things: from washing machines to sound systems, lentils to vegetable oils of types we have never come across.   We make a few interesting discoveries, for example that virtually no Indian pots and pans have lids, apart from the ubiquitous ‘cookers’ (ie pressure cookers) of which India must have the largest supply in the world, and we have a few surprises: I decide to buy some oatmeal so as to make porridge, but discover when I take it home that it is spiced oatmeal – doubtless delicious, we’ll have to see!

Several things elude us in the hypermarket, and anyway we prefer little local shops, so we go to some of the town’s ‘markets’, which are really shopping areas consisting of rows of little shops.  Bapu Bazar has electrical appliances, plastics (dust bins, storage jars etc), bed linen etc.

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Hathi Pole has cotton goods (lovely Indian print bedspreads etc).  One soon realises that it is quite tricky to mime certain household things, like ironing boards and washing up drainers, and that items one takes for granted are not necessarily part of the standard equipment over here.  All part of the fun – and doubtless adding to our reputation as crazy foreigners.

In one shop recommended by a friend we are able to buy all the appliances we need and they deliver and instal them within hours.  I am particularly looking forward to working with the mixer, which includes a range of blenders to grind spices and help make chutneys and sauces – as seen on Rick Stein’s wonderful TV series.

The vibrant fruit and vegetable markets are a passion of ours, and we never miss a chance to wander through them, marvelling at the riot of colours and textures (and I’m not just describing the produce!).  I have always found it frustrating to be unable to buy any of the produce since staying in hotels doesn’t really lend itself to cooking up aubergines, okra, onion and garlic.  We have both been looking forward to being able to do just that.  So now every day we stop at one or other of the many vegetable stalls along the road and buy enough for dinner and the following breakfast.  So far I have been so tired at the end of every busy day that the menu hasn’t been very varied: a mixture of onions, garlic, aubergine, okra, peppers, tomatoes and coriander, with some cumin and chillies, accompanied by rice and some chutneys and pickles.  But I long to start trying out some of Rick Stein’s recipes.

On previous trips we have always been careful about what we ate, and been remarkably bug-free.  But of course it’s relatively easy if you eat in hotels and recommended restaurants.  Now we are shopping and cooking for ourselves.  We sought advice from a number of Indian and English friends about the use of water purifiers and how to make safe the things you are told not to eat when you travel here, so we had a reasonable idea of the procedures to follow.  But before we came, I lay awake sometimes worrying that I would get it wrong and poison us with inadequately washed and cooked veg.  But so far so good.  We have a water purifier and then boil the water we intend to use for cooking, and we scrub the veg in purified water before cooking.

For now, when at home we are following a traditionally Indian ‘veg’ diet, and it remains to be seen whether we feel brave enough to buy and cook ‘non-veg’.  There are two nearby butchers, whose wares are certainly fresh as they consist of live chickens and goats outside his shop – probably quite sensible given the lack of refrigeration.  I’m just not sure about dealing with a chunk of still warm goat or chicken…

It is a great delight to me to find things like chickoos (naseberries to us Jamaicans, and not a fruit I have seen outside these two countries) and to feast on papaya sprinkled with fresh lime juice, pineapple, custard apples and freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast.

The Indians tend to view tamarinds as a savoury to give delicious pep to savoury sauces.  I wonder if I will be able to explore making Jamaican tamarind balls (sugared tamarind flesh around the seeds, a favourite of all Jamaican schoolchildren) and guava jelly, another favourite from my childhood.

Rubbish

This is of course one of the scourges of India.  You can’t travel a few meters through any town or country village without seeing piles of rubbish strewn around the streets.  Part of the problem is that in many areas there is no organised rubbish collection.

When we had acquired a mountain of packaging material, following the delivery of appliances and furniture, we had to stop our lovely caretaker Jagdish from tipping the lot over the wall onto the adjoining unused plot.  Similarly, we had to rush into that same plot to recover the household waste tipped over the wall by his wife Manju – much to her amazement and amusement.  I have no doubt that they think we are quite mad.   We hope to persuade a local rubbish man (on a bike) to call by to collect rubbish twice weekly, but so far he is reluctant as the other households down our lane have proved unwilling to pay the few rupees he needs to make it worthwhile (about 1p a day).  So we take our rubbish when we go out in the car and drop it into a dumpster.

But virtually everything has a price here, and one of Manju’s relatives carted off all the discarded cardboard and bubble wrap which he sold for recycling at Rs 350.  Maybe there will be a way of making all rubbish recycling pay so that one day we’ll see an end to the awful heaps of rubbish around the place.

We’d also like to investigate digging a compost pit in the next door field, but everything decomposes so quickly here – and attracts unwelcome animal visitors – that we will need to be careful to avoid smells and flies.

Getting things done

India’s love of bureaucracy (doubtless a relic of the Raj) surpasses that of Belgium (where we lived for many years), so we had thought it would take months to get cable TV, wifi and other services.  But we were wrong.  Because on our last trip we had sought the help of the one man in India who seems to know how to ‘recharge’ (top up) an iPad SIM, he greeted us as loyal customers and sold us new SIM cards and a dongle to link the laptops to the internet, with only the need for a few forms and ID photos.  Et voila!

At the house, we had cable TV installed and set up within hours, and the wifi man is due shortly.  The furniture we had ordered from the local store of an Indian chain before we arrived was here when we arrived, as promised, and the mattresses ordered on our first evening in Udaipur arrived a day ahead of schedule – impressive.

We have been extremely fortunate to have the help of friends who have ensured that a request to install a fan in the kitchen, to move a tap to the right height for a washing machine (not sure why that hadn’t occurred to them before…), to remove a bolt from one external door so that there is at least one emergency exit guaranteed to be unlocked on the outside (important for a claustrophobe like me) results in a man appearing within half an hour.

But we can only assume that the caste system applies to workmen.  The painter obviously doesn’t think it’s up to him to move furniture or put down a dustsheet to avoid drips, the carpenter doesn’t think he should clear up chunks of wood, and the men who put in the grills around all the windows clearly didn’t think they needed to clear up cement spills from window sills or basins!  Ah well!

The simpler things take longer though.  Getting a trolley full of goods entered onto a cash register and paid for is a long and tedious process.  More often than not the bar code reader doesn’t work so items have to be entered manually.  And then as you leave the shop a guard asks to see your receipt.  The first time, struggling with an overflowing trolley of brooms, mops, buckets etc, in amongst eggs, pans, oils and spices, our hearts sank as he began to look at every item.  (They don’t give shopping bags, quite rightly, and we had not yet acquired them, so everything was piled into the trolley en vrac.)  Mercifully, he too seemed to realise that this was going to be a hopeless task and contented himself with checking a few sample items before putting a line through the receipt to indicate it was checked.  But now we had to get the trolley to our waiting car – and that meant unloading and carrying everything up and down a set of steps onto the road in the ferocious sun, while trying to make sure nothing disappeared as it waited unattended (probably an unnecessary concern).  It reminded me a little of that riddle of how to get a wolf, a goat and a cabbage across a river in a small boat that can only take one passenger at a time.

We have now worked out that there is an underground car park, but it costs 20 Rupees (20 p) so the drivers have to be persuaded to use it.  But it makes life a whole lot easier.

 

Setting up home abroad

As a couple we have travelled extensively, and moved with our children between the UK and Belgium.  But this is a very different adventure.

I can’t help thinking of my beloved French grandmother.  She met my Jamaican grandfather when he was a very young soldier posted to her native Normandy during World War I and she was still a schoolgirl.  They married a few years later and she set off, at the age of about 20, to spend the rest of her life with him in Jamaica.    Her tales of running a household in 1920s Jamaica are fascinating, and 30-odd years later I remember her sallying forth every Friday from her house in Kingston to Papine market, armed with a big straw basket, to do the weekly shopping.

My mother too, having grown up in Bristol during the Second World War, could not resist a newspaper advertisement for a PE teacher in Jamaica and sailed out to longed-for adventure in the tropics.  She met my father and spent the next 20 years running a home in the hills above Kingston.

How I wish I had taken the time to ask both of those intrepid women how they felt when they first braved the Jamaican market stalls, itinerant vendors and domestic help in 1920s and 1950s Jamaica.  I rather like the idea that in some small way I am following in their footsteps.

Much of what we are experiencing must seem much less familiar to John than it does to me, with my memories of growing up in Jamaica.

 

Hot nights

At the end of the long tiring days we have so far spent setting up home so that we can do something useful, it is wonderful to stand together on the roof of our little house, gazing at the Aravalli hills around us as the stars come up and the half-moon shines down, listening to the cacophony of nocturnal insects and birds.  Even the sound of the occasional dog barking is different in the hot night air.  Back inside we greet our friendly lizard and encourage him to bring a few friends to gobble up the occasional ant and mosquito.

Back in Udaipur

As we left Robin and Mary’s on that first evening to head to dinner, Robin had explained that the throng outside were mourners.  A neighbour in the small alley leading to their door had died and the nine days of mourning were almost over.  As we picked our way past the separate groups of women and men, the women seated mainly on thin green matting on the ground while some of the men were on chairs, we pressed the palms of our hands together, fingers pointing skyward in front of our chests, and exchanged ‘Namaste’, good day, with individuals.  There was a small temple a little way down the alley on the left which appeared to be a focal point for the mourners. Its doors were open to reveal a shrine reverberating in yellows and gold contrasting with the faded colours of the doors and walls of the alley outside.  Many of the mourners were still there when we returned from dinner.  By the next day, the numbers had dwindled and nine days of mourning were over.

To find the main street between Jagdish Temple, one of the city’s landmarks and an important place of Hindu worship, and the City Palace, which presides over both lake Pichola to the south

Udaipur 6

and the old city to the north, and the small band of tuktuk drivers based there, we climbed up steep steps and then made our way along a narrow alley parallel to the one on which Robin and Mary’s house is located, past the local dogs which have their own communities and take little notice of passers-by.

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Here, there were a few small businesses, one exporting Rajasthani craftwork, its industrious owner dressed in western style, with white shirt and dark trousers, filling the doorway on ubiquitous cellphone.  Two doors along was the local dairy complete with milking cows which spend their days wandering along these tiny streets and are brought into a small courtyard at night.

Udaipur 2

When, if ever, they last saw anything resembling a green field, one can only speculate.  You see many cows living in the urban areas often ‘grazing’ on the plastic bags which are collected and dumped at specific points along the roads.  Local women buy some greenery in the morning from the roadside vegetable vendors and throw it down for the cows, but this offering is quickly devoured and the search amongst the plastic soon resumed.

On reaching the tuktuk drivers, there is a brief negotiation which results in a 60-Rupee (roughly 60 pence or 1 USD) put-your-hands-in-front-of-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best dash across town.  Udaipur was the location for the James Bond film Octopussy, still screened non-stop in local hotels and guesthouses.  Early on in the action, there is a famous tuktuk chase through the market streets of the old city with stalls overturned, bunting ripped down and trailed in the tuktuk’s wake and pedestrians scattered.  It is, however, a pale reflection of the real thing!  The tuktuk has one wheel at the front steered by handlebars on which the driver also operates the throttle and, very occasionally, the brakes; it is extraordinarily manoeuverable but, if you have not experienced this particular pleasure, you do not have this reassurance. Our previous close encounter with a tuktuk was in Pune earlier in the year and had resulted in what is known in aviation terminology as a ‘near miss’!  This time, we arrive in one piece, if slightly older than by the five minutes which the dash lasted.

The next few days were spent setting up the house.  (We are posting a separate account with more detail of these activities – see the first in our ‘Between the Lines’ posts.)

It is a very long time since we have equipped a dwelling from scratch.  Initially somewhat anxious about the availability of various key items, from fridges to loo brushes, we were soon visiting small retailers in Bapu Bazar as well as newer shopping malls with Indian supermarkets, like ‘Easyday’, which sell almost everything.  However, we had been advised by Mary not to buy fruit and veg in the supermarkets because the produce is not as fresh as that of the vendors. India has recently opened its doors also to international multiple retailers, like Walmart and Tesco, leaving it to the individual states, of which Rajasthan is one, to decide whether to accept them and, if so, how to regulate them.  The long debate leading to this decision highlighted the vulnerability of the smaller businesses, not to mention the street vendors and particularly those selling fruit and vegetables.  However, over 40%, if not more, of all agricultural produce in India is discarded as waste for the lack of refrigerated distribution and storage.  In a country in which malnutrition is still a huge problem, there are obvious potential benefits in the logistics systems of the experienced multiples.  How this revolution will play out and with what consequences for many aspects of traditional life in India, only time will tell – for now, we are grateful the service of the small retailers: ‘When can you deliver?’ ‘This afternoon!’

A number of you have asked about hurricane Phailin which hit the eastern coast of India, mainly the state of Orissa.  We were invited to dinner by our next door neighbour and were able to ask about developments and also catch some reports on one of the news channels.  Following a devastating hurricane in 1999 which killed 14,000 people in the same region, the state and national governments adopted a number of emergency measures in the hope of preventing a similar tragedy.  These included establishing a disaster recovery service and emergency shelters to accommodate those evacuated from their homes as a precautionary measure.  It appears that, in the case of Phailin, the forecasters were able to give five days’ warning, which enabled the authorities to evacuate 700,000 people, a truly staggering figure.

As of the last report we heard, there were only four reported deaths attributed to the hurricane.  The prevention efforts were aided by a decrease in the intensity of the hurricane and its relatively short duration.

Further inland, in the state of Bihar, heavy rain and strong winds caused some flooding and led to the cancellation of all flights.  One dinner guest reported that her mother’s plant pots had been blown over, but otherwise limited damage!

There is a political angle to all this.  Next year is election year in India.  Whilst the national parties, Congress and BJP, are well represented in many states, there are local parties which have regional strongholds.  Some of these can and do hold the balance of power in a country in which no single party is likely to secure sufficient votes to form a government on its own.  Coalition government is the norm here.  Accordingly, state governments and the parties which form them are anxious to do well not only to retain or secure power at the state level but also to have the possibility to influence the formation of the national government.  As the plaudits pour in for the preventative actions taken in Orissa and also Andhra Pradesh, these state governments are basking in the glory of a job well done – at least according to the reports we have seen.

Here, in Rajasthan, on the north west side of India (please see the map below), we experienced some torrential downpours last week, but understand that this was the end of the monsoon rains.  The monsoon started earlier and finished (if it is finished) later this year than usual.  It will be interesting to see the effects in the rural areas of semi-arid southern Rajasthan which we will start to visit again shortly with Seva Mandir, the Indian NGO which we will be supporting while we are here.

India_Map (1)

We thought it might be helpful to have two categories for our posts.  Those in this series are called ‘India At Large’ and those which provide more detail of specific activities and experiences for those thirsty for more ‘Between The Lines’.

Return to the Aravalli Hills

After three days in Delhi catching up with friends and contacts and attending to various administrative matters (most importantly securing Indian SIM cards for mobiles and a dongle for the laptops to connect to the internet), we started the journey south to Udaipur on Sunday.  It would be a long drive over a day-and-a-half, weaving between the once brightly painted Tata and Ashok Leyland lorries with “Blow Horn” and “Use Dipper at Night” on their tailgates.  You need a good driver in India.  The unexpected is the norm as we see a large bus heading north towards us on the semi-hard shoulder of the south-bound carriageway, followed by a tractor and trailer – not to mention the cows sleeping in the outside lane.  Maybe dodging and weaving describes the drive more accurately.

Leaving South Delhi and the well laid-out Paths of the diplomatic area, you soon see the high-rise buildings of Gurgaon, the new city suburb which is home to many international businesses and ex-pats.  We had spent the previous evening there with our friends Adrian and Helen, eating outside at a restaurant in their new apartment complex, complete with pool and gym.  The first part of the journey takes you over flat terrain with buildings of various descriptions lining the dual carriageway: shops, industrial areas, part-finished apartment blocks and vehicle repair workshops with worried looking drivers sitting on their haunches, elbows on knees and appearing to clutch their heads as mechanics lie on their backs under the vehicles searching for the problem.   The route is also peppered with lorries whose axles have broken, often tipping them into the roadside ditch from which a crane, which may have to come several hundred kilometers according to the signs at the toll booths, will be required to lift them. Eventually, there are fields which are green and fertile after the rains.

After six or so hours and a short stop for delicious, freshly cooked veg pakoras, there is a surge of excitement as the Aravalli hills become visible first to the right and then to the left.  The Aravalli hills, the oldest fold mountains in India, run northeast for about 800 km across the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and then, as isolated hills and ridges, the states of Haryana and Delhi. The Aravalli hills surround us in all their glory at the house and are reassuringly welcoming, reminiscent of a camel train crossing the semi-arid landscape which is southern Rajasthan and our base for the next while.

At around 5 o’clock, we draw into a small heritage hotel for the night. Once the hunting lodge of the local royal family, it was converted to a hotel four years ago.  We are the only guests and are given the choice of his highness’ and her highness’ bedrooms on the first floor, reached by typically steep and turning stairs designed as a last line of defence, with sitting rooms, bathrooms and a veranda overlooking a small but tidy garden.  The correct and very polite senior man tells us that they have to water it as the rains have been poor and the water table is very far below the surface.  But the former lodge is surrounded by fields with lime, mango and guava trees and a variety of crops.  Having established that we had no plans for the rest of the afternoon, the senior man offers us a bullock cart ride to the local village to see the milking and visit local families.  We readily accept and arrange to start at half-past five.  We had chosen his highness’ rooms because they were, predictably, a little more spacious.  The plumbing seemed innovative as hot water responded to a pull on the handle and steam rose from the depths: a whole new slant on a hot flush.  We should have realized that this was not in fact standard procedure but hurried off to meet the bullock cart.

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The lodge is about a kilometer from the road and passes between fields planted with guar gum and dotted with neem and acacia trees.

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The village is a short distance on the other side of the road and we are soon greeted by lively women who invite us into their front yard where the cows, calves and buffaloes have been brought for the night.  We are too late for the milking but, camera in hand, John soon has the women and children, some very keen to have their photos taken but one little one appalled by the prospect, forming groups while exhorting them to smile.  Portrait photography is a challenge here: the subjects laugh and smile, flashing their beautiful white teeth, until the photographer raises the camera to his eye, at which point a studied seriousness descends on the faces.  We have seen this many times before.  Playing peek-a-boo from behind the camera and making funny faces usually does the trick but you have to be quick!  As soon as they see the camera approaching the eye, portrait mode is resumed.  The session is interrupted when one of the calves head-buts John firmly in the right buttock.  Now, that brings more smiles and hilarity to the proceedings: quick, aim and shoot while everyone is distracted!

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We move on to two other houses to witness evening activities: drawing water from the well and cooking supper.

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We meet, and exchange greetings with, a woman and then two young girls making chapattis.

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We are offered a taste by the girls.   Very good indeed!  Felicia says that we enjoy eating chapattis with chutney and vegetables.  They think we are asking them to offer us chutney and vegetables too.  Our bullock cart driver resolves the misunderstanding to their obvious relief.

It is getting dark and we head back for dinner set up outside by the new pool which is lit.  As we reach the reception room, the senior man anxiously explains that they have moved us to her highness’ rooms as there has been a flood in our bathroom.  Well, this was not an understatement: the steam was clearly the precursor of an exploding pipe and the formation of a small lake in the bathroom and adjoining room where we had left the luggage.  Fortunately, all the bags were dry except the one with John’s new laptop and various papers.  Why Felicia found the sight of John drying the equipment and spreading the papers while muttering in what sounded like rudimentary Hindi under his breath so amusing, one will never know.  Dinner was excellent and a well-earned G&T and glass of Sula sauvignon blanc prepared the way for a sound night’s sleep.

We were up at dawn and headed out with the bullock cart driver, this time on foot to walk through the fields.  There was early morning activity with women working watched by their children.  The out-buildings of the lodge were now storerooms for crops. We saw sesame plants drying so that the seeds would fall out with a gentle shake.  The bullock cart driver explained that they stored the crops until market prices were good.  Good old supply and demand.

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On checking out after breakfast the senior man announced that they had discussed the matter and decided that there should be no charge for dinner or drinks to compensate us for the “unnatural attack by water”.  They were very keen that we should be content with our stay which, we assured them, we were.  It was nevertheless clear that a decision had been taken, so we graciously accepted and said we would tell others and return ourselves.  (For those visiting the area, this is a true find: Bijay Niwas at Bijaynagar).

After another four hours on the road, guided all the way by the Aravalli hills, we arrived in Udaipur and went straight to the house where we met Manju, the caretaker’s wife, and two lovely children, Anita and Yuraj, three and one: Anita’s big brown eyes and blown kisses will break hearts; Yuraj is still not too sure about us, particularly John pretending to tickle him – plus ça change.  Manju was dressed in typically colourful, traditional Rajasthani attire with long head scarf with which she would gracefully cover her head to frame a beaming smile.  As yet, neither Manju nor Jagdish, her husband, whom we met the following day, speak any English and we speak no Hindi, but communication is about more than words (albeit that they do help).  Having dropped off some luggage, we headed to a small bed & breakfast in old Udaipur, reached on foot for the last few hundred yards up and down winding alleys, where we were greeted by Robin and Mary Thomas, whom we had met on our last trip.  Despite their names, Robin and Mary are Indians who were brought up in an area of northeast India formerly settled by Christian missionaries.  We would stay three nights there while we kitted out the house with essentials.  Dinner at the roof restaurant of the Jagat Niwas Palace hotel overlooking Lake Pichola, which is as full as we have ever seen it, blissfully rounded off the day.  We had arrived!  For several years a developing dream, and a year (almost to the day) in the planning.  Amazing!