Slum school


I’ve finally landed in my placement and started at the slum school in Faridbad. It is run by a Christian pastor, Rakesh who is passionate about his work.

On my first day, I was given a tour of the place in the fog, but since it was a public holiday there was no class. Walking into the slum was like being transported to another world, only a block down there were brick houses, markets and street hawkers. The conditions in the slum really felt impoverised, half built mud huts and rubbish salvaged plastic and tin sheets covering their thatched roofs, still donning the advertised logos of their former life. Cows, goats, chickens, pigs and dogs freely roamed around the dirt yards eating garbage. Pastor Rakesh introduced me to the “school”. It was just an small open area, no blackboards or walls for that matter…it was basically the yard. In a disused half hut were wooden writing benches that had been donated, enough to sit lots more kids but it was being damaged as there was no roof to cover them. Plastic sheeting would not cost very much, but there just was not enough funds. We went around the slum and Rahesh found and introduced me to some the children. It was not quite the sad look I’ve seen in the world vision commercials but more of a nervous “Who is this stranger?” bepuzzled expression that donned their faces. However, when I smiled, they smiled back shyly and then ran to hide behind papa.

The next morning at 10am, I had my first day of teaching. The kids, about six to ten years old came to setup the tables. They even found me and Debbie, a fellow volunteer, some chairs to sit on. The rest of the kids arrived, shivering in the cold and stood up when I was introduced by Rahesh as “Something something Justin something something Australia something” and they all clapped. He then took me to the senior students not more than ten years old and who stood up and chanted “Good morning, sir” in unison. Rakesh annouced something to them in Hindi, indicated to me and left.

I gulped. No one had told me what I was supposed to do, I had no clue what was going on. The boy in the front row handed me his book. “The cow is white. It gives me milk” he had neatly writen between the red and blue markings of the pages. He started spelling out each of the words and reading it out aloud. “Err..Hang on, I’ll be right back” I said awkwardly, before I rushed off to ask what I was supposed to be doing. “Check Homework” Rakesh said. “Oh right … of course”, so I went back and started sitting with each kid to see what they had done, slowly going through their work. After I was done with the last kid I went up to Debbie and asked, “Umm what do I do now?”, “Give more homework!” At the time there really wasnt a sylabyss so I had to make up stuff on the spot. I got them to write out shapes, colors, days of the week, animals and anything else I could come up with. They were all at different levels so it was hard to figure out what was going on. Finally school ended with oral recitation of the alphabet, times tables and nursery rhymes in Hindi. I felt as though the kids really knew more than us.

The day after I thought I’ll try something less of a challenge and took on the nursery class. Boy was I wrong, these kids had just learnt to write their ABCs and 123s. I started with a little girl, reciting the ABCs from her homework spending time on each letter till she could recite it better. Ten students later, a million screams of “Sir-Ji! Sir-Ji!” (I believe Ji was supposed to be a title of respect), kids coming up to me with more undecipherable Hindi, confusion over maths vs english, homework vs classwork, which lines and how many lines to write between, eventually drove me insane and I just wanted the whole thing done with. I could make out when they wanted toilet, but most of the time I had no idea what they were saying with their pleading voices and expectant gazes. Some of the kids could barely write, so I would have to hold their hand with their pencil and make dot to dot pictures to join the alphabet letters together.

All the while goats bleated in the yard, chickens ran around, a strange odour smelling distinctly similar to ganja filled the air. Other times other pantless kids came to watch or run around with a big wheel and a crowd of people would gather.

Pastor Rakesh was very strict, carrying around a big stick and all the kids were completely terrified of him … maybe we were here to balance the scariness out. When we had “sport”, which were more like games, the little kids became their giggly selves again. Debbie’s explanation of how to play “red-light, green-light” didnt quite translate well into Hindi, but the kids still seemed to enjoy the lost in translation version of the game. Afterwoods Me and Debbie went with Rakesh to the market and we donated a blackboard to the school which didnt really have anything at all.

I had never really taught before nor had I ever thought I was ever a particularly good teacher. Im sure I’ll get used to this eventually and warm up to the kids as they are all so adorable but so far the whole experience a little confusing..but I’m sure it will turn out to be a more enlightening one later

Heres a tip

I’ve been M.I.A for the past few days as I’ve been a tourist and its hard to be able to find a good connection on the go.

For some strange reason there was always bizarre childhood dream of mine to be able to goto a hotel restroom where theres someone there to hand you towels… it was probably in some of the movies I had watched somewhere. So here I am in India, and I guess you can say … my dream had been fulfilled? And no, its not glamourous at all, its really quite creepy. In India, theres always seems to be someone in the toilet waiting there, paper towels at the ready, from dodgy hotels, the airport and shopping centers. If you do take the offered towel, they will block the exit until a tip is forth coming.

When you are a foreigner, especially as a tourist, you are in a perpetual game involving how to get as much money out of the foreigner as possible.

In Agra, our waiter approached our table four times. First time, “Good food? You happy, me happy” Second time: “Good food, good tip”, Third time: “Please leave good tip sir”. Fourth time: “My job not finished till you leave tip sir” and then stood there next to the table until we opened our wallets to give him a tip. I didn’t really have the chance to discuss with my friend how much to actually pay.

At times I am torn between, should I just pay them, they don’t get paid much anyway and I refuse to get ripped off just for the sake of it. Most tourist sites have a different ticketing price for foreigners and locals, normally a difference of 25 times more.

To be fair, we had probably gotten a crappy experience as we stayed or ate at the wrong places. In most places which are not tourist infested there are no awkward problems, but after being hassled wherever we went for a few days, it made me defensive whenever someone happened to be nice about anything. No, I do not need anyone to help me with my luggage, open the car door, turn on the hot water, and no I do not need those damn hand towels!

Im in Faridbad at the moment, I’ll be blogging about what its like there soon enough as well as about the places Ive visited.

OMG Photos!

Hooray! I finally can get photos off my camera…  Heres what happened. Ive been a bit of a tourist lately going around seeing the wonderful historical sites in Delhi. I’m now gonna bore everyone with computer stuff, but too bad. I had brought an SD card reader to get the photos off my camera memory card. Unfortunately, after trying in vain it seems all the computers here in India are way too slow to read from my SD card reader, which meant: no photos for everyone.

Yesterday,  after visiting the Red Fort in Delhi, our driver went missing and we went back to the car and found him in Chandi Chowk markets. He told us that his phone was broken and led us into a labyrinth of street hawkers, screaming merchants and eventually to a mobile phone repair…well i guess you could call it a “store”. He went upstairs and there were 5 guys in this tiny room (no more than a meter wide) with soldering irons hammering away at his phone. Deep in this jungle of narrow lanes and alleyways, was the most amazing sight of thousands of  merchants selling the most craziest electronic gear out on the street from mobile phones, dvd players to speaker systems. The entire whole market could probably make the next iPhone (its probably where the fakes come from). I thought I would try my luck and see if they would had a cable for my camera but I didn’t have much hope as it was a very specific and obscure Fuji adapter. A Sikh man with a white turban examined the camera for 5 minutes, spoke to some others in Hindi, made a few calls and told me to wait here while he walked off into the jungle with my camera. Our driver had already come back happy with his phone repaired, and so I was expecting that it was the last time I would see him or my camera again, but then round the corner his white turban appeared with my camera and  a cable which fitted perfectly. I wasn’t really in a strong bargaining position after that but I got what I wanted and it didn’t work out to be very much converted back anyway.

Chandi Chwok marketsChandi Chowk markets

Our driver then led us to another corner of the markets. Being foreigners, we were the novelty of the town. The guys at the shop kept asking us things back home, checking out our phones and trying to flog us NOKAs and other unheard of brands of mobiles. One of them kept haggling me to sell him my camera. I managed to bargain for a 32GB USB drives  for 400 rupees (less than $10), which would cost about 7 times more back home. Ok, yes, its a fake Kingston but its still pretty good… so I think.

The most surprising thing was, they both worked perfectly (actually the USB drive is a bit corrupted), and I can now show photos.  So without further ado, you can compare what really happened to the pictures to my poor descriptions.


Guragaon, Delhi
We started our Cultural immersion program with our programme co-ordinator. We learnt some basic Hindi and some enlightening facts about the history on India, the culture, the religions and politics.

Gurgaon (where we are staying for our orientation), we are told, is one of the most affluent and safest areas of Delhi, its where the new industries have been starting to flourish and will be the new center of business. I remember being driven past the office towers of Citibank, ABN Amro, etc built with more impressive architecture than back home, and looking quite out of place in the dusty landscape. Our apartment complex is guarded like fortress, like a haven to those who come priveldged enough within its four walls. The apartment building is not luxurious by Australian standards but more than adequate for our needs and even more so for the average Indian.

During our free time, me and David (a fellow volunteer from Iceland) went down to the main center of town, City Mall via rickshow to check things out. Juxtaposed within the dusty dirty landscape of street harkers, cows and merchants rose blocks of modern malls and new buildings in the process of  rapid construction.

A mallA mall

It interesting to see how even in the shopping mall district where a highway divides the area into two there were no pedestrain crossings to get to the other side. The town planners already knew that people would never use one anyway. To cross the road you just had to run head long into the traffic across the busy freeway and hope you dont die in the process. I held my breathe followed the lead of one of the locals and lived on to eat my masala chips I picked up at one of the vendors.

MaccasFinally! Something at Maccas I can eat!

Malls in India seem to have the things we also have available in Australia from Maccas, Levi’s, Giordanos aswell as stores that they have only in India like Baazaar and Tata and stores like TGI Fridays, Ruby Tuesdays that seemly all other countries get to have but us . Prices were defintitely alot cheaper… only the equivalent of a few dollars for the jeans, shirts, and progressively higher for the more familiar brands. I couldve felt more at home if it wasnt for the security guards posted outside every store and the body scans we needed to go through get into each othe malls. They may have been there to make us feel more secure clutching their rifles but it didnt seem to quite have the intended effect on me. Despite the airbrushed posters of Bollywood models drapped accross the walls enticing me to drink “Bubbly”, something just didnt quite sit right, maybe the unsmiling gazes of the multitudes of sales people waiting to assist the nearest customer or the unnerving stares from the men in the restrooms also trying to assist you. Maybe “Bubbly” was something everyone else thought we were drinking.

Once back out on the street, it became apparent we were an easy target for child beggars. Their formula was simple: Cute, grubby and very very persistent. David with his blond hair and fair skin had it worse off, as we were chased by one of them through the traffic and only managed to escape by climbing onto a rickshaw and heading straight back home to our fortress.

BeggarsThese beggar kids came up to our car when we stopped. Instead of giving them money, I took a photo and showed it to them. They giggled and became children again – its probably not often they get to see themselves.

Still cant upload photos, but at least my credit card woes are sorted now.

Through the woods and back to Delhi

Gurgon, Delhi
I know the rate in which I’ve been blogging has not quite been able to convey the sense I’m in a remote poverty stricken country, to which all I can say.. at least the internet is really slow here. But today, i’m excused. Its my day off, so called “sleeping day”, where the volunteers arrive off the plane and come back to the lodgings to pass out.  I’ve already done my fair share of passing out,  apparently I slept through lunch despite two attempts to revive me… so now I’m on the internet… and on a very slow connection with a 13” CRT. Can’t get skype to work either.

I got back to Delhi this morning after another 12 hr bus ride. This time I was prepared with woolies (no, not woolworths) and covered myself with blankies, socks, and beanies which I had stocked up over there. I met my programme co-ordinator Rajan in the wee hours this morning. He seems like a nice guy and also laughed at how I got ripped off by the taxi drivers for charging me 1200 rupies to his place this morning (they were damn convincing I swear it). It seems my project plans have changed. Delhi projects are understaffed as Jaipur was the popular destination, so he recommended I go there instead (apparently some of the girls wanted to go to Jaipur for the shopping experience and volunteering provided a means of cheap accommodation – talk about aspirations!). It’s a rural project on the outskirts of Delhi in Faribad to teach at a school for underpriveledged children. After about 8 weeks I will also do other community development work such as womens groups and health. I was happy to help on whatever needed the most support. I met some other volunteers here aswell from Iceland and Denmark and everyone seemed really cool.

Yesterday after visiting lower Dharamshala (there wasnt much to do there except use their very slow internet), I went for a hike up in the mountains. Dharamshala isnt the best place to be getting a lesson in stranger danger as people are so nice here and you can strike up a conversation with anyone. I already lost count of the numbe of “Konichi wahs”, and “From Japan?” I get as a greeting. Though conversation with some New Zealand and Spanish nationals who have been travelling around India, it seems Dharamshala is the place where they all end up and then stay for months on end, as it is so serene. A an old good-humoured Buddhist monk showed me his Gompa, a small and dimly lit room filled from wall to wall with statues of Buddhas, Boddhisattvas and fearsome dharma protectors. While being distracted by playful cats, I made out through his broken english he was a Tibetan refugee who came here 18 years ago.

After being asked by some kids whether Ive seen their lost cow, I kept hiking and encountered a fork in the road where a girl sat cross legged. “Which way to the top?”, I asked. She pointed to the right, and I followed it up. It led me to a private lodging which I was reluctant to trespass and on the way back down I encountered her again. “Did you find what you were looking for?”, she asked. Despite the whole sagely demenour, she was actually as lost as I was. I told her where the path actually went and we both went exploring for the best way. Her name was Clara, and she was working as an artist in California had come to Dharamshala to volunteer on the photography project for Tibetan children for two months. She kept asking me about what it was like back home in New Zealand despite correcting her and her apologising profusely each time (at least it wasnt Japan). We came to a clearing of with aboandoned house and an old Tibetan nun sat huddled over a fire over a tin roof. “Which way to Dhamakot?” (a place near the top), Clara asked. Smiling, she pointed up, despite not seemly comprehending what we meant. “To-de-cheh!” (Thank you) I said, the only Tibetan words I knew (been using that one alot). After we trampled through “The path less travelled”, through barbed wires, cow dung and encountering monkeys on the way,  I told her I needed to get back to make my bus. On the way, we came back to the fork she and I were at before, and it turned out we shouldve taken the other turn. A young tibetan man was strolling back and after asking him, he told us it went to the top, but he had started walking at 4am (it was 5.30pm). I wasnt too keen on it making it all the way there.

Clara taking pictures of monkeys

Clara taking pictures of monkeys

Next to the road there was a white building with Tibetan inscriptions. Adventurously we pushed through the gate and noticing the geometry marks on the blackboard, I observed it was a school for kids. In green painted against the white columns next to the doorway stood the only english words: “Come to Learn” and “Go to Serve”.  “Isn’t that what we are here for?”, Clara remarked. I thought the same.

I am a Chinese agent

Lower Dharamshala

EveningEvening in the valley

HHDL residenceWhere His Holiness lives. Didnt quite manage to sneak past the armed guards

Outside of HHDL templeThe pogada area outside the temple

They say religion and Politics don’t make good conversation but what else is there to talk about when you are in Dharamshala. Tonight I was accused of being a Chinese agent – way to go, talk about building rapport. Now, Ive always considered myself to be pretty pro-Tibet… you know the whole going to Dharamshala thing and have even been accused of being whitewashed in the past for my views… but I would  this would ever happen. Ok well heres what happend. After visiting HHDL temple, I struck up a conversation with some of the locals (there wasnt really much else to do here otherwise at night). A lot of them happen to be second generation Tibetans, whose parents fled Tibet as refugees and have built their lives there, establishing shops and communities.. and after many years the area has really grown and flourished with the influx of tourism (and blessings of HHDL of course!).

A kind store owner pulled up a chair and told me about the situation happening to Tibetans, which was great as I really wanted to know abouit first hand, an older Frenchman who had overheard us came in to join the conversation.  I consider mysef the type of person that likes to challenge things, and accepted ways of thinking (or so I think), and so the conversation turned to a friendly debate on what we think China and Tibets future. As the conversation got more heated, I thought I would turn it around and talked about more casual stuff like where he was staying, for how long, what his plans were, etc.. but he just gave me alot of vague answers of which then I came to know why. “I think you are a Chinese Agent. Ive met Chinese agents before and they speak like you”, he stated in full seriousness. My reaction was a mixture of bewilderment, amusement and confusion… I laughed and asked him to check my passport “Well, you could be an Australian but still be a Chinese agent”. I told him about how I try to read widely especially on views that challenged my own… we sat in that store for the next two and a half hours discussing the topic (I chucked in some extra anti-Chinese arguements just to make him happy) and at the end of it we exchanged internet sites to review and he said he no longer thought I was a Chinese Agent, well thats what he told me anyway. He was actually quite informed about the Tibetan movement. I still havent quite figured out what the lesson to be learnt out of this is: When in Rome?, refrain from talking about politics in an  unfamiliar place?, French people have a strange sense of humor? don’t be a Chinese Agent in Dharamshala? Its interesting how so much of our perceptoins which we take as our own and as certain and concrete are shaped by wha we read, and who we interact with in order to form world views on things. To have my views of my own perceptions challenged in that way was a really interesting. At least I now know that its not the dreadlocks that are causing those stares from the local tibetans. =)

Anyways, Tsuglagkhang was beautiful… I’ll post some photos when I figure out how to. Anyways, off for more adventures.


11.17am McLeod Ganj, (Dharamshalla)
As I walked out of Manju-Ka-Tilla yesterday trying to avoid the beggar lady carrying her child that wouldn’t leave me alone (might’ve had something to do with my confusion in trying to understand what she was saying being mistaken for compassion) I was approached by a driver who said he could take me to the Australian Embassy (I had to sort out troubles with my credit card). Driving through the crazy traffic again, I got to glimpse Delhi in the day and the poverty is much more striking. I also learnt many insights from my Punjabi driver through his broken English about his Sikh Guru’s special miraculous healing powers, how one of them was maytred with his throat slit by the Muslims who didnt like his religion, how driving in Delhi is actually very “orderly” comparatively as it is the state capital, and how police in Delhi are very friendly “You just give them 10 or 20 rupies and they say “You go now””. However he was unable to articulate answers to my more naive curiourioties “Why do police here  carry machine guns?”. We drove past some kids holding signs “Staying in your lane is good” – apparently its road safety week. It was also amazing to see the industrialisness of everyone everywhere where hawkers will just walk amongst the traffic and try to flog you everything from newspapers, fruit to feather dusters.  “What happens in a accident?” I ask. “Everyone comes and helps, take to hospital”, My driver replies. “What about the damage?” “We compromise how much agree”, “Do you always agree?” “Always”, “What about police?”, “No, no police”.

The Australian embassy itself was a fortress with 4 m high walls, surrounded by security checkpoints and large menacing No parking or Standing signs greeting anyone who approached, essentially meaning my driver couldn’t get in. However, by flashing my Australian passport, they let me in through the security complex. Above the fortress was a poster with smiling Australians promoting multi-cultralism , while outside Indians queued on a dirty road outside for Visa processing behind green bars. Inside the embassy itself, I met some fellow Australians, from the Gold Coast. They had just had a baby boy (who is technically Indian since he had just been born here a month ago) trying to sort out his citizenship. “Why is everything in Australia so difficult” the father said, “In India, anything can be done, as long as you have the right amount money”.

At night, I boarded the Potala bus to Dharamsala. Racing through the dark streets to the mountains, it was cold… very cold, but I managed to sleep through most of the interruptions, with hawkers coming on our bus trying, as I watched cows eating rubbish by the roadside. At about 8am we reached McLeod Ganj, passing some picturestue valleys like just out of a postcard. Kashmiri men rushed up to the bus, being extra helpful in trying to assist us in our luggage. I asked a monk if he knew the way to the post office, but he was unable to understand my English. Not knowing the way while trying to carry three large packs, I thought, what the hell and took one of the men on their offer. He carried my bags up to the postoffice, but we couldnt find the way to my guest house, so he asked one of the other locals, who told us that the Hotel was closed and he could take us to a much nicer one. I insisted and (as dorky as it was) took out my Lonely Planet and pointed. With sudden change of mind, he said he misheard and and pointed to the right way.  The room was much nicer than the previous night, with a view of the street and mountain and had what I had been eagerly looking forward to… a hot shower. It was too late when I realised that “hot water” advertised actually meant 5 minutes of lukewarm water, but at least it woke me up.  Credit card is still stuffed after spending the last 3 hours on the phone with them just then, Tried to upload a picture of my view, but doesnt seem like the computer likes me either.. o well.. on to Tsuglagkhang (HH Dalai Lama’s residence) after this.

Delhi – first impressions

12.30 PM Manju-Ka-tilla, Delhi

Hooray! Im finally here! Arrived in India last night. It was a pretty surreal experience. The first thing that hit me was the air. Even, at the airport a thick haze hung over the air, smelling like dried embers of a burnt fire. Initially, was concerned about myasthma, but it doesn’t seem to be much of an problem. After retrieving my luggage, I was then stopped for my passport by armed officers (policemen maybe?) carrying submachine guns and was greeted by my driver, Ramu as I came out. He was carrying a sign with my name but it wasn’t a smiling face, maybe he was as nervous as I was. As we walked out, an armed guard with an AK-47 stopped my driver and demanded something in Hindi, Ramu said the hotel I was staying at and scrambled for some documents. Eventually they let us pass… I guess he was on my side then in case Ramu had decided to kidnap me =). We walked through the car park, and stopped in front of a concrete block, which seemed to work as a Hindu Shrine. The first thing I noticed about his car was that the windscreen was cracked, there sat a Hindu god on his dashboard illuminated by LEDs changing color slowly, and a fire extinguisher sat on the window pane. When he started the engine, hindi music blasted through his sound system.

As much as Ive heard about Indian driving, its nothing until you experience it. Think of it like dodgem cars all going in relatively the same direction… except not hitting each other. The concept of staying in the same lane doesnt seem to exist here, I wonder why they even have lanes here (I did smirk as we passed a sign saying “Stay in your lane, Violations will be penalised”). As I held on for dear life, weaving in between rickshaws, trucks, bicycles and rickshaws Ramu seemed to ease up, maybe cos he left the airport. He smiled and we chatted but we didnt get very deep due to the language. There is alot of dirt well… everywhere. Along the roads, there are mounds of dirt just piled up, like everywhere is just a big unfinished construction site.

View from car on night of arrivalView from car on night of arrival

I was pretty tired by the time we reached the Guest house, it would be 5am Australian time. Ramu took a leak by the road, before he took me into the Tibetan Refugee community, Manju-Ka-Tilla. Before I knew it, a boy came and grabbed my luggage up to the room. He turned on the TV for me, and eagerly awaited a tip. I paniced as I had no change, so I gave him 100 rupies . The room was quite …well basic. Nothing was really clean, there were dark stains on the pillow, sheets, walls and even the towels. The bathroom was also underwhelming, no hot water (although the hot water tap was there), a toilet that didnt flush, and no toilet paper. Taking a shower wasnt really the something I was keen on, especially with tempretures of 7 degrees here. Nor could I brush my teeth as I didnt get a chance to pick up any bottled water. But really I guess I was glad to have somewhere to stay for the night.

Morning came, and I ate at the Restaurant downstairs, and chatted with the people there and alot of safron robes. Everyone seemed to think I came from Japan… so I had to explain I was from Australia, but Chinese, etc. They were all very friendly and I picked up some Tibetan words for the day. I went downstairs to confirm my hotel for tomorrow and as my agent typed stuff into the computer, I thought she mustve been entering stuff into some booking system, but it turned out she was on msn to her counterpart in Dharamshala. It seemed that Wizard Mastercard had just blocked my card, I will have to goto the embassy to get that sorted. Time now to go exploring! What am I doing here in an internet cafe anyway…