Monday, November 30, 2009

AAA in Delhi - a positive story

Last Friday night, 27th November, we visited the AAA homeless shelter for men and boys in the heart of Delhi. It is an amazing place. We were all made feel very welcome – difficult to do when you feel like an intruder.

Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan is an organisation run by 34 year old Sanjay Kumar for homeless men and boys in Delhi. The city has a huge homeless problem, seen every day by us as we walk past men and women sleeping on the streets, under trees and very often in the centre isle of a road – anywhere they can lay their heads.
‘Triple A’ as it’s commonly known invited us to see one of their ten shelters that houses 400 pax in total. This includes 65 boys, all of whom have Sanjay as their legal guardian. There are currently approx 100,000 homeless in Delhi.

Across the city they can accommodate over 1000 men and boys in 15 shelters. They used to have one shelter for women, but that was torn down for development purposes. In addition, during the winter they put up many tents around the city in order to prevent people dying from the cold.

Sanjay gave up his well paid job as a government employee over 7 years ago and has achieved so much in the meantime. Through lobbying of the state and national government his tenants now have ID cards, a major achievement for the homeless, as it gives them the right to vote. He has even managed to get them ATM cards into which they can lodge their meagre earnings from driving rickshaws, carrying wedding procession lights, working on the many construction sites across Delhi in preparation for the Commonwealth Games next year.

The accommodation is very basic – a blanket on the floor, but they also have access to drinking water, a hot meal, a TV, a library and 24 hour medical care. All staff are volunteers and some of them were homeless once themselves. There is a menial charge for 12 hours in the shelter, 4 rupees for working men, 2 rupees for the older age group, but only if you can afford it.

The children get access to education every day and for them lights out is 10pm. So we were invited to see them first and received a great welcome. They were delighted to show us their books, in Hindi and English. They told us their names and ages and then asked us where we were from and why we were in India. Every time one of us said we were a volunteer we received a big round of applause. The biggest reception was for Evans from Kenya who told them he was is a football coach – in fact he’s an engineer.

A lot of the men were already in bed when we went into that section, but it was not as packed as it would be later that night. Sanjay was very proud to tell us that a lot of the residents were out working at the time. We met one man, aged 72, who had been there 7 years. He was very proud to show us his ID card and we were told it has allowed him vote in the last 2 elections, something he had never previously done due to lack of identity. It was wonderful to see the respect the younger men had for the older generation, always leaving them a particular section of the floor to sleep on no matter how crowded their own section may be.

A trip I’ll never forget.

If you’d like to learn more about this great organisation take a look at

Or from whom they receive some sponsorship

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Honking horns, traffic jams (and the Taj Mahal)

Yesterday we visited one of the greatest pieces of archicture I have ever seen – the Taj Mahal, in the town of Agra, approx 4 hours north of Delhi

We got up at 4.30am and relied on a very competent taxi driver to get us there. Through all the ducking and diving between cars, lorries and auto-rickshaws, while getting value for money from the car horn, we arrived at the Taj Mahal to be told that if we went through the gates by 10am we’d be admitted for free (the usual fee for foreigners being Rs 750). So naturally we ran to the gate as the parking area was some distance from the palace itself. We had picked the right day to go. It was the Muslim festival of Bakr-Eid, and as a good will gesture everyone entering before 10am was admitted free. We just made it.

Was it worth getting up in the middle of the night for the trip? Absolutely !

The pictures we all see on the web, or on the TV don’t do it justice. The grounds are an amazing piece of 17th century Mogul architecture. It’s just fantastic what you can build with over 10,000 men and a 1000 elephants. It’s a pity that queen in whose memory it was built never got to see it.

The words ‘Taj Mahal’ means ‘golden palace’ and even though there was little gold to be seen the symmetry of the buildings stood out. It’s funny really that the only thing breaking the full symmetry of the palace is the tomb of the king who built it (he was later buried beside his wife who was laid to rest in the centre)

It was a great day and the grounds were not as crowded as we had expected. We then went on to see Agra Fort, which was very busy. We spent an hour there, but by then the tiredness was setting in and as we had all seen what we came to see it was time to return home to ISI – and straight to bed.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Food Glorious Food (and a few other things)

We went on a trip around ‘Old Dilli’ today and saw one or two interesting places in between eating and eating. We started as a group in taxis from our residence and sped through crazy Delhi traffic and honking horns until we got to the area known as ‘Old Dilli’.

On arrival we were immediately surrounded by cycle rickshaw drivers, which was a good thing as we needed 10 between us, and we paired up for a day of adventure.
The old Delhi streets are very narrow and packed with people so after a while we realised that the best and safest way to get around was to let someone else take responsibility. Anyone walking would really have to watch their feet.

I saw my first wild monkey today on the roof tops as we walked to see the local spice market. Very cramped and very smelly(spicey smelly) we pushed our way through the crowds as our guide, Liam, current VSO volunteer, guided us in the direction of the steps that would take us to the top of the spice market and we were able to see a great view of all the hustle and bustle. The spice market, though vast, was not what I had expected having seen spice for sale in Morocco. Each seller seemed to specialise in a particular family of spices so there was no array of colours in any one place.

We then went to see a Jain temple with it’s beautiful colours and glass windows, followed by speeding our way through the streets again in our rickshaws. Shopping in this area would be interesting if I had been there to shop. The streets are laid out according to what is being sold ie on one street it’s all saris, the next all glasses, the next all shoes etc. Not like shopping at home the locals have to walk miles to get what they may need.

We then had our first stop for food – the famous Pawartha Wala - in the same place since 1875. Basically a pawartha is a form of flat bread, with just about any filling you could want and served with a selection of dipping sauces. The most common choices seem to have been mixed veg, cashew nuts and banana. All equally delicious. We followed this up by making an attempt to get into see the huge mosque in the district, but unfortunately it was prayer time and we were not allowed in. So to pass the time we went for more food.

This time we went to one of the most famous restaurants in Delhi - Karim’s. As it turned out the stop for pawartha was just starters and we all tucked in various main courses in Karim’s. The food was delicious. Some of Karim’s recipes go back generations to the founding chef who worked for the last Mogul emperor. There are a few recipes that are never written down and are passed from generation to generation.

We then all piled back into our rickshaws and our driver turned into Michael Schumacher. Flying through the traffic he must have thought he was an F1 driver so Gina (my rickshaw companion) and I held on for dear life. But we made it to every stop safely, despite a few hairy moments.

Our last stop was outside the amazing Red Fort. Unfortunately we didn’t go in, but I hope to be able to get back to it before leaving Delhi.

Tomorrow we’re off shopping for our sawaar kameez – so watch this space.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Week 1

Namaste !

Two Hindi lessons and I'm already fluent. Classes are going ok. A bit tough but all for a good cause.

There are 16 of us here in Delhi,with 3 more on the way.It's been a great week, but I can't wait to be able to cook my own food and not rely on restaurants. I have had enough curry this week to normally last me months at home, but when in Rome......

We have had our first weekend off and got lots of exploring done around the city yesterday. Unforunately things can be a bit expensive when you look like a tourist, but prices should come down a bit once I move to Bhubaneswar and start wearing a sawaar kameez, and have a few words to ask the price while explaining I'm a volunteer here for a long time. Hindi classes are great fun. We start verbs tomorrow.

Weather is quite hot today - high 20s, but I'm going to be honest and report that it did actually rain here on Friday. We had to venture out for dinner with our umbrellas.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I have arrived - and to prove it I'm here

First blog from Delhi.

We got in at 4am local time yesterday (Tuesday) morning and all straight to bed having received our mosquito nets. When we finally got up around 12 noon the sun was shining and life in Delhi was moving on. Thinking I was in a city where the sun would be shining I covered myself in factor 40 only to venture out and find that even though it felt sticky it was not very hot. And today it's cooler again. Although I have been told it's always hotter in Bhubaneswar (my destination in 4 weeks time)

There are 16 of us VSO'ers doing in-country training together and it's a lovely group. We had yesterday all to ourselves so we just strolled around to 2 of the local markets and around Lodi park which is meant to be one of the nicest parks in the area. It's full of old temples (unfortunately not cared for) dating back to the 1400's. It gets dark early - before 6pm - so you need to have a torch with you. Walking on the broken pavements is quite dangerous in the dark. There are even signs up warning you about this ' Accident prone zone'.

Dinner last night was in a lovely restaurant in the Defence Colony Market, but we stuck to vegetarian until we get more used to the local foods.

We start our language classes tomorrow. We will be learning Hindi not Oriya as previously advised. But that's ok as most people speak some Hindi in Bhubaneswar and the office culture is to speak English - so I'm sure all will be fine.

Monday, November 2, 2009

7 days and counting .......

Well, this time next week I'll be on a plane somewhere between Heathrow and Delhi.

My visa has arrived so it's full steam ahead now for what I'm sure will be a fantastic year ahead. So far there's been no reaction to any vaccines and this morning I started taking my anti-malarial tablets (must remember to take them again tomorrow morning and the morning after and the morning after that etc etc)

Suitcase is packed - well sort of.
I still have to sit on it to close it. Thankfully as a volunteer development worker I'm allowed to bring more than I would be if I was going as a tourist.

At this stage I know that there are possibly 18 of us arriving in Delhi at the same time from the four corners of the world. Will be an interesting 4 weeks of in-country training in Delhi. Sounds like quite a gang.

I can't wait to go at this point. I have been in contact with others I did the VSO courses with who are already in their alloted countries like Vietnam, Zambia, Namibia and Tajikistan and am feeling a bit jealous.

Monsoon has finished (thankfully) but and temperatures are mild (for India) -only in the high 20's C at the moment. That'll be the main challenge. But everyone tells me I'll adjust to the heat. I'll keep you posted on that.

So that's it from Ireland. Next post will be sometime next week from Delhi.

Until then......