Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Holy City of Varanasi

I was in two minds about visiting Varanasi, and to be honest still wasn’t sure as the taxi brought me to my guest house from the airport. But I’m very glad I did.

Varanasi is an amazing place. Being one of the oldest cities in the world, and probably the oldest city in India, approx 5000 years old, it is full of tradition and custom (most of which I either don’t understand or don’t agree with) and I now say it’s a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting India.

I only had 2 ½ days there so when I discovered that my accommodation was in just the right location to see everything on my ‘to do’ list I made the decision not to venture too far. I stayed in Scindhia Guest House, basic, clean and friendly on Scindhia Ghat, right at the edge of the old city.

I loved the old cty. It is full of narrow streets and pedestrianised (and more importantly no incessant and pointless beeping car horns). The streets were too narrow for cars but not too narrow for cows. It was not as dirty as I had expected, but very smelly. Most of the streets smelt of urine. The shops, small, pokey and on top of each other looked like they may have been there since day one.

And the steps. Oh the steps. I have never seen so many large, steep steps in one place. Considering the average Indian person is not as tall as I am I do wonder how they cope with the steps ?!

And in Varanasi the shop keepers knew how to treat potential customers. I won’t say there was no shouting, but much less than Jaipur. On the negative side there seemed to be a lot of extreme poverty and child labour. I bought from a shop ‘manned’ by a boy named Suhail age 14 (he looked like he was no bigger than my 8 year old nephew). He had perfect English so when I asked if he went to school and he said yes, I hoped he was telling the truth. I just had to buy from him as he did everything he could to sell me a t-shirt. I think even if I didn’t like anything I would have bought something from this kid. He is a brilliant sales man. I just wonder what kind of future he has….

I spent my first day strolling around the narrow streets with a French couple, N and F, (or should I say N et F) I met in the guest house. They had just arrived in Varanasi too and had been travelling around India for the past month. I think they were just as happy with the interruption as I was with the company. We spent the day browsing around the shops and spending some time in roof-top restaurants overlooking the Ganges and the ghats. They had a Garmin route-finder so we never got lost in the crazy maze of small, narrow streets.

My second day in Varanasi was a bit more chaotic, getting lost frequently and probably seeing more of the city than the average tourist.

My guest house was quite near a burning ghat and on Saturday morning I found myself climbing some steps I had seen other foreigners at the top of, simply out of curiosity. It was only on reaching the top I realised I was in the area where Hindu cremations are carried out. I was standing in an area where there had recently been three cremations as the fires were still hot. When I looked over the edge I saw a ceremony taking place for a recently deceased gentleman. He was just being laid out on a bed of timber logs (70kg worth of logs) having been dipped in the sacred waters of the Ganges. I witnessed his brother praying around him as other male family members observed. I was extremely uncomfortable watching this (and still am as I type it to tell you) but as I knew I would never be back I had the compulsion to stay and watch until it was time to light the fire and then I walked away.

I have never been comfortable with the caste system here and never will be, but was even more disappointed to find that even in death the Brahim caste are treated differently. They are cremated in more expensive sandal wood in a separate area.

I was also disappointed to see that no women attend the ceremony. As I walked through the streets that day many funeral processions passed me by on the way to the cremation grounds, but only men ever accompanied the bodies. The dead were wrapped in red and gold it all seemed quite normal.

Each morning I sat out on my balcony and watched as 20 – 30 men came to the water’s edge and shaved their heads. This is traditional for Brahim men who have recently lost a relative and is a mark of respect to the Gods.

I was also amazed at the number of people who washed and swam in the Ganges every day. To a westerner looking in from the outside the Ganges is an extremely dirty river. To a Hindu they are sacred waters. I watched with interest as children swam and had competitions to swim against the flow which looked impossible. I have to ask are they so used to swimming in this dirty water that they have become immune to the dirt in the water? Or is it that we are so used to taking pills for everything we are prone to picking up germs more now?

I was equally intrigued by the number of young boys and men, ranging from 7 years and up wearing orange. It was explained to me that they are training to be Brahmin priests, very often sent by their families who are unable to feed them. Training to be a Brahmin priest gives them shelter, food and an education. Brahmin priests can marry and have families, however if they chose to take it a step further and become a Sodu they live a truly religious life. It became very common to see them walking around the town in groups, in bare feet as is the norm. Despite the religious nature of the city it was disappointing to see the armed police on guard at entrances to the Golden Temple and the city’s mosque due to trouble between the two communities over 20 years ago.

I loved Varanasi, but like my trip to Karanjia I have far more questions than I’ll ever have answers.

The Lone Ranger

I’m just back from a week travelling to Jaipur and Varanasi on my own. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. I’m used to travelling with company, but to be honest I enjoyed being able to decide my own routine and being able to be completely selfish for a bit.

I flew to Jaipur on Sunday 15th August (Indian Independence Day), which included a 5 hour lay-over in Delhi airport. I know 5 hours sounds quite long, but I enjoyed the solitude in a busy airport, minding my own business and ensuring Costa Coffee’s profit for the day.

I finally arrived to Japiur on Sunday evening, just as a heavy down-pour ended, to the Umaid Bhawan hotel, a traditional Rajastani house. Beautifully decorated I fell into a four poster, double bed, after having a shower with hot water (life’s little luxuries that volunteers don’t have).

I was up bright and early on Monday morning to visit the City Palace and take some time walking around the old Pink City. I’m afraid to say that the Palace was like any other old house (Rajasthan Tourism forgive me) but it was. I didn’t get to see the house pictured on the tour guides. Even though I showed my Indian residency papers to the ticket office I fell for the ‘if you pay the tourist price it’s overall better value’ line as it included an audio guide and a entry ticket to another tourist attraction. Unfortunately I wasn’t impressed by the display of old clothes, armoury and chess sets, but others may be.

I later went across the road to the observatory which this year has been declared a World Heritage Site. This time I decided to stick to my guns and only pay the Indian entrance rate, and was nicely impressed (Rs 20 compared to Rs 150). In this case a lot of the explanations were in Hindi but I got enough out of it for me. A certain astro-physicist (L that’s you) I know would have been far more impressed. But it was impressive to see what could be created in the 1800’s.

I spent a lot of time walking around the Jaipur bazaars admiring all the silk items, carved wood and blue pottery. Jaipur is well known for it’s availability of well-priced silver and gold so some Christmas shopping was done while I was there. I didn’t like being constantly shouted at by the shop keepers ‘Mam come into my shop, just looking…’. Jaipur shop keepers have a lot to learn if they want Europeans to spend more money in their city. The positive side of this is I got to see quite a bit of the city as I chose to walk around it instead of paying the crazy prices auto drivers were quoting for short rides. If I had been a regular tourist I may have been saying ‘oh that’s so cheap compared to Euro’ and happily pay their rates. But I’m an Indian resident and it really made me mad that they would quote such ridiculous rates. In once case I was quoted Rs 200 for a Rs 30 journey.

On my last evening in Jaipur I got to experience my first proper monsoon shower. The heavens opened for less than an hour on Wednesday evening, but due to lack of drainage in the city the water rose to over 27 cms in some areas. At the time I was in an auto which eventually gave in to the rain and so I had to give in too. I rolled up my trouser legs and walked through the flooded streets back to my hotel. Rolled up trouser legs or not by the time I got to my hotel I was soaked. But considering the serious lack of rains here this year it was good to see some. Unfortunately I read on a news website the next morning that a Jaipur resident had fallen into a drain the city authorities had opened to alleviate the rains and has since died.

Would I recommend Jaipur as a place for tourists? It depends on what you want to see, but for me it wasn’t really worth the trip. The only saving grace was the smile on the face of the porter / housekeeping assistant that I met in the hotel each day. When I found out it was he who spotlessly cleaned my room every day I left him a ‘thank you’ tip (my friend F is now thanking the heavens that someone recognises back of house staff). Thankfully my luck was about to change with my visit to Varanasi

Indian Trains

Always late



Heavily armed guards

People throwing rubbish on floor

All male staff

Blankets distributed by under age boys who sleep on the floor beside the toilets at night time

Very dirty toilets





Will always have a story to tell

Interesting friendly people

And lots of chai.

I love them.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August Interview

I was asked by VSO Ireland recently to do an interview for the Limerick Leader newspaper. For whatever reason it hasn't yet been published (and may never be), but it has managed to find it's way into the August edition of VSO Ireland's newsletter. 
So here it is.
Limerick girl working as a VSO volunteer in India speaks about her placement as Human Resources Advisor in Orissa 
Jennifer Ryan in India
Whereabouts in Limerick are you from? I’m originally from Bruff, but am a resident of Annacotty
What brought you to India, why did you choose India? I have wanted to volunteer for as long as I can remember but never actually did anything about it until I was made redundant last year.
I didn’t actually choose India. India chose me. I was accepted by VSO as a volunteer through their interview process last March (2009) at which point my CV was put in circulation to be matched against a role that may come up. I was offered this role in May (2009) and having read the placement outline and done some research on the NGO, the location and India in general I was happy to accept. I have never been to India before and consider myself very lucky to have been offered this placement.

How long have you been out in India?
Every year VSO has 3 intakes of volunteers into India. I came with the group that arrived last November. Now that I have been here through the summer season I appreciate how lucky I was to come in November during the Indian winter. It gave me an opportunity to build up to the heat and the humidity that I have been experiencing for the past few months. Since March my bed has been right under the fan in my bedroom – the only possible way of getting any sleep in the summer months. No air-con out here !
What have you seen to surprise you?  Has anything 'opened your eyes'?
India is very different to life in Ireland. I live in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of the state of Orissa. Orissa is the second poorest state in India and is classified as a starvation state. Bhubaneswar has a  population of 1.6 million of which as a large proportion of people living in the city slums (unofficial figures are around 40%) some of which I walk past every day going to and from the office. It’s not unusual to sees people collecting water from road-side pumps, washing children in the street and even children walking around naked.

The slum-dwellers are mainly tribal people who have come into the city looking for work. The tribal women in particular amaze me. As well as being the home-makers they can often be seen working on construction sites carrying the bricks on their heads, mixing the cement.
Within the tribal culture there is an obvious gender divide. The roles of men and women are very clear, something I personally find quite frustrating.

This is a vast country and as I get opportunities to travel around and see some of it, it is very interesting how different people and their circumstances are from place to place.

I can’t say that anything surprised really except the level of poverty. I have listened to many speeches by Indian politicians in my time here mentioning how India is a world economic super-power. I don’t see any of that here in Orissa. And of course the caste system is more obvious than I thought it would be.

Everything was new and interesting, and very often frustrating. But over time I adapted and got used to it eg being stared at as I walk down the street, men urinating on the road side, cows walking through the traffic, eating rubbish. I have had to learn to understand and accept that although it may not be acceptable behaviour in my culture, it all happens here for a reason.
The trickiest thing was getting used to eating with my fingers when out with Indian friends or in remote locations. It took me a while to master it and sometimes left me hungry, but I eventually cracked it. It’s also been challenging living on a mainly vegetarian diet. I have also gotten used to telling people I don’t like spices. I do, just not the level of spice they put into dishes out here.
What activities have you been taking part in?
VSO’s motto is ‘Sharing Skills, Changing Lives’ and that is what volunteers do. I’m currently working with 2 NGOs. I’m here as a HR (Human Resources) Advisor, so most of the time my job is quite similar to what it was in Ireland. Since my arrival I have been working with CYSD (the Centre for Youth and Social Development) in Bhubaneswar. CYSD is a large, well-established NGO working to improve the lives of poor tribal and rural people in Orissa. My role here is mainly assisting them with updating their HR practices to bring them in line with best practice.
In recent weeks I have also started working with a smaller NGO, Adhar, in a remote part of the State of Orissa called Balangir, 7 hours from Bhubaneswar by train. Adhar focuses on  social, economical, political and cultural inclusion of the excluded social groups like children and people with disabilities. My role here is foundation HR, developing basic policies and procedures with them. I’m very happy working for both as I get to see two different levels of NGOs
The pace of work here is very slow compared to Ireland and this can be quite frustrating, but I have to get used to it and accept it. After all I am a guest in India.
I have recently also been able to spend time in remote Orissa meeting some local tribal people and learning about their lives, traditions and culture. An amazing experience which I would recommend to anyone. I even learned to sew banana leaf plates.
I’ve made an attempt at learning some of the local state language, Oriya, but am not very good at it. Thankfully most of my colleagues speak some English so we get along fine. Even the local auto-riskshaw drivers quote their prices in English, but from time to time at the  vegetable stalls we have to resort to ‘sign-language’.

What is the single biggest thing you will bring back to Ireland with you? (as in a change of outlook, an appreciation for what we have here, etc.)
I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. I have made some very good volunteer friends here in Bhubaneswar, some of whom will be finishing their placements in the next few weeks. So, this is a popular conversation topic right now.

I’m very conscious about the difference in the cost of living and am determined not to mention it too much when I get home. I’ve been thinking about how I will describe my experiences to family and friends without making them feel guilty about what they have.
This experience has definitely made me appreciate what I have, so much so I will probably volunteer again next year – home for Christmas first though.

I’ve found I have become a very patient person. Indian people are not famous for their time keeping so I have learned to not expect anyone to arrive when they say they will. IST is no longer Indian Standard Time, but Indian Stretchable Time.
I’ve also decided that I’d like to stay working in development or in the charity field and have recently been researching some distance learning courses to give me a more rounded understanding of the main areas.

What is your educational background?  Have you completed a degree, or are you taking part in one?

I have a post grad diploma in Personnel and Development from the National College of Ireland and am a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (Chartered MCIPD)
Did you travel to India alone?
Yes and No. Yes in that no friends or family came with me. But no in that I knew a few other VSO volunteers on the plane as I had met them on the pre-departure training courses that VSO run. When volunteers first arrive into India we spend a month in Delhi on an in-country orientation programme and in this I also got to know 2 other volunteers who were coming to Bhubaneswar.
Could you see yourself working full time in India eventually?
I don’t think so. India is an interesting and colourful country and I am very glad I came out here. But I think the culture is too different for me to live here permanently.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


My first field visit.

What an experience.

Tuesday 13th July:

We travelled on the 4.30am bus from Bhubaneswar on the morning of Rath Yatra, the most important festival for honouring Lord Jagganath, the God of Hindu Gods.

On arrival we went to visit the Santali tribe in the village of Digposi approx 8km from Karanjia. The village is divided into 4 hamlets and I have the good luck to spend time in 2 of them over the few days.

I travelled with C who was known to the community so when we met an elderly lady holding a baby she welcomed us into her home. It turned out she is the wife of the Ward Member, the elected representative of that particular hamlet, who was inside in the courtyard weighing up a tiny amount of home grown vegetables so he could sell them. In total he had no more than Rs50 worth of produce.

Naturally being two white women we drew attention and within minutes we had approx 12 on-lookers from the immediate family. I was given the baby to hold. This is done if you want your baby to turn out like the person being asked to hold your baby. I’m sure this was a compliment to me, but it made me think about how they were comparing themselves to us. Are they happy, sad, envious of this difference? At this point I asked C to take a photo of me and this immediately triggered a request for more photos. The little girl is 5 months old and still has no name. It is traditional to name a child within 20 days, so I wonder if she was a boy would she have a name by now. 

They live in extremely basic houses. The pictures give you the impression that they have more than that. They are built from cow dung, and then painted. Some outside walls have local tribal art painted on them. Inside there is little but a few mattresses and I saw one bed.

The ladies lay out rice on the road front of their houses to dry in the sun, ensuring the chickens don’t take too much. After approximately 2 days the rice is then tread on to de-husk it so it can be eaten. Looking at the amount of rice on the roads I wonder how long it will last, particularly if it is to be used to make alcohol. Driving through the countryside we saw plenty of rice alcohol stills – made and sold by the women, drunk by the men.

During our few days around the village we questioned what people are paid for working in the paddy fields. We were told by the Ward Member it is Rs50 for both male and female which is the government recommended daily rate, but different women gave us different answers up to a difference of Rs for women and Rs100 for men.

Paddy is the main crop grown here, but this provides employment for only 3-4 months of the year. The local tribal families may have up to 2 acres of land, which sounds wonderful, but it is uncultivable if the rains don’t fall. As I write this the fields around me all look beautifully green and the women are working in the paddy fields, but only 25% of the expected rains have fallen, so it needs to be asked where this leaves the local families work-wise and food-wise for the coming year.

Wednesday 14th July:

Due to a sudden heavy downpour of rain on Wednesday afternoon we sheltered under the roof of an outside barn in the home of the local Santali Priest and spent time speaking with his wife and family. It was very interesting, if somewhat sad, learning about their way of life.  They have 3 children – a boy 8, a girl 6 and a baby boy just over a year old. Despite a father educated up to grade 3 (6 years old) and an illiterate mother the 2 older children attend school. However that seems to be where anything in common for a boy and a girl end. The girl, at 6 years old, is expected to fetch water daily from the local pump. Her container is small, but she still has to go. C and I both had a go at carrying the child’s water container on our heads. The six year old made it look easy, but we didn’t think so. At least it gave them some entertainment for a while. The container carried by her mother can hold up to 10litres of water. Her brother can cycle the family bike but she will never be taught how to. Her father collects timber for the fire using his bike, but if her mother collects the wood she will carry it on her head. She does not know how to cycle and seems to accept this.

When the rain finally stopped we walked back over to the other hamlet to attend a Santali wedding, just in time to see the marriage parade. The bride was being carried in a basket on the shoulders of approx six men and the groom sat on the shoulders on one other man.

Both threw rice at each other as they were carried around in circles. At one point the groom also ‘threw’ rice at his bride-to-be with his mouth. Then using some form of a grass brush they threw water at each other. Finally the circling stopped and the groom painted red vermillion on the bride’s forehead and in the parting of her hair (the sign of a married lady) and that was that. They were married.

A lot of the female wedding guests wore saris with Santali design, dyed in turmeric, which is meant to bring the couple good luck.

I was introduced to the Sarpanch, a lady, the elected head of the Gram Panchayat (representing approx 5000 villagers) who has responsibility for the villages modernisation, and the Tribal Chief, who is responsible for all matters cultural, was pointed out to me. I wonder if they ever clash.

Thursday 15th July:

In the morning we went to Golkund village to see an Early Childhood Care and Development centre (ECCD). It is open 6am – 10am Monday – Saturday. We met the coordinator and some of the children who attend. The centre is for children 3- 6 years and currently is attended by 6 girls and 12 boys. The village has a total of 32 school age children and all go to school.

In the ECCD the children are given a very basic breakfast of jura and mixed wheat powder. The walls were brightly painted with important message pictures eg a bed with a mosquito net, how to wash hands etc. Initially the children were very shy and when I tried to say hello to the first group who came to see us as we arrived they all ran away. But bit by bit they got curious about my camera and their pictures on it. They had never seen a camera before. They told us their names, with a lot of encouragement and over time we played some games with them which were a great experience.

We later returned to the the Ward Member to learn about the construction of the local water tank. Only half of the houses currently have access to running water. Latrines had been previously built but were no longer of any use and people were returning to their old habits. The Ward Member told us that all of the community had agreed to contribute labour (5 days) but during the water tower’s construction some pulled out. The funding for the materials was provided jointly by CYSD and another NGO, Gram Vikas, who are experts in sanitation projects. The shortage in funds means that currently over 65 families out of 105 cannot get pipe connections to their homes. This needs to be completed soon otherwise the villagers will lose faith in modernisation.

After lunch we went to visit what is becoming a model private school for girls in 8th, 9th and 10th grade. This school only has 3 classrooms and is attended by 150 girls, 100 of whom are full-time residents. They are mainly tribal girls who would normally be expected to drop out of school around this age. The advantage of this school is that the six teachers are all from the local community so they can go speak to parents about the benefit of education. Some of the residential girls have come from miles away. They do pay fees  - Rs 50 per month for grade 10, Rs 40 per month for grade 9 and Rs 30 per month for grade 8. This covers their meals, books and accommodation.
Meals- they share the cooking themselves
Books – they share them as they don’t have enough
Accommodation  - approx 45 share the floor space in each of 3 small rooms that also contain their personal belongings. They don’t yet have mosquito nets, but that money has been issued by CYSD and the nets will be bought soon.

The school also has a kitchen garden that the girls attend. They all looked very happy when we were there. It is clearly run by a great set of teachers. The teachers themselves funded an external wall and will fund a door to keep the girls safe at night.

The good news is that Plan International has agreed to fund another 15 of these schools, thanks to the dedication of the teachers and the support received. The six teachers have even funded a security wall from their own meagre wages.

On our journey back to the office we stopped in the village of Osanomani and called into a local house to see their recently built external toilet. It felt a bit odd just walking into someone’s property without an invitation, but M from CYSD was known to the family and he explained to them that he wanted to show us their new toilet. Out of the 75 families in the village 41 currently have new toilets and the rest are being built.

I’m delighted to have had this opportunity to visit Karanjia and meet the dedicated NGO workers and some of the local tribal people. However this week has left me with more questions than answers about –
  • the tribal people themselves
  • their way of life
  • the women in particular and their acceptance of their ‘place’ in society
  • a system that allows this poverty to continue
  • a system that replies so heavily on the generosity of NGOs to do what they should be doing themselves.

On our way back to Bhubaneswar on Saturday evening as we drove through the Simpali forest I saw a sign that was new to me. In Ireland we have signs saying ‘Danger. Cows crossing’. This one said ‘Beware. Wild Elephants cross here’. Unfortunately I didn’t see any. They were all sheltering in the in the dense forest waiting patiently for the paddy to be fully grown before they come out for a hefty meal.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Birthday Blog

I’ve been so interested recently in when the monsoon will start, how heavy the rains will be, by how much will the temperature drop, I forgot to blog about my birthday.

As I was on a train to Balangir on June 21st, my birthday was celebrated on Saturday 19th June along with the other Jen here in Bhubaneswar.

Jen G’s birthday falls on the 22nd so since we first met last December we agreed that we would hold a joint celebration.

I had been out sick from work the previous week as I had pulled a muscle in my back trying to move a gas cylinder (the joys of being a volunteer) so my name-sake kindly offered to take responsibility for the party preparations. This was definitely a good thing. Jen G is a far more talented chef than I am (not that I can actually call myself a chef). She was ably assisted by her Sous Chef A. All I had to do was turn up at the right time.

It was a great evening. All the Bhubaneswar volunteers got together. We had party hats and balloons. We had veg and non-veg dishes. We even had a few beers. And P played the guitar.
And as with all good parties we even had a birthday cake – mind you ‘Jen’ became ‘Jain’ on the cake. And of course we ate the cake in traditional Indian style – ensuring a bit was rubbed into everyone’s face.

It was a great evening. I’m not very much a party person, particularly when it comes to my own birthday, but I really enjoyed the evening. Thank you everyone.