Monday, 28 December 2009

Christmas in India

(Click for more pics - professional ones to follow)
Tears were rolling down my cheeks, I had my hand over my eyes to avoid peoples gaze as they looked on awestruck, my spanish friend had her arm around me to comfort me, they think I'm sick.

I was in the biggest slum in Asia.

I'd met some photographers here for a shoot for the national press and had had to leave my bike as the paths between houses narrowed so much the handle bars were just pulling down corrugated houses. My senses were on overload, incense mixed with raw sewage, banging house music deafened all conversation but you turn another corner and the music dies and you can just here the kids playing cricket on the rubbish dump. Squealing and arguing whether it was LBW or not, saris flash past you and kids dirty colourful toys are hugged intensely.

We're invited into a house which is no bigger than a store room. Anything from 5 - 10 people can share a room. Kitchen, storage, beds are all in a space about the size of a queen sized bed. A girl lies in the tiny bed. She is so skinny she looks like the mummy in the British Museum. Just skin and bone. A tear rolls down her cheek with the effort it takes to look up and see the aliens that have entered her home. Angela has a bright tattoo down her left arm and piercings, with the looks of a well practiced model, I obviously have the brightest ginger beard ever and blue eyes that can only be associated with something from another world and a stupid grin on my face.

But this is the only low point of the whole trip - the charity have really tried to give an insight into what life is like in the slum. I'm impressed how well they live in these buildings (if you can call them that - they look like a strong wind would flatten the lot (luckily I'm able to handle curries a bit better now so my wind wasn't going to be a problem!!)) the children are all happy and enjoyed climbing on me like a climbing frame and chasing the balloons that I fired all over the slum.

My tears are falling because I'm back in the office of the charity and they are telling me how the money I have raised is being used in the slum. Abi translates what the women are saying piece by piece. Part of it funds a trade union run by women for women. Initially i hear graphic stories of how the women were beaten and verbally abused by their husbands for joining and creating such a thing. Bano (the team leader) is speaking again with emotion I can feel. Abi translates "These women stuck with it and kept working and then the results came..." - it feels like a movie... I know what is coming next and burst into tears. all the emotion I felt from the trip rips through me. I'm uncontrollable. I try and pull it together because i want to hear the rest.

The results came and the people realized these women were getting far better results than the men ever had and the husbands changed there tune too. They would stay at home with the kids on the days the women needed to work. There status in society is sky high.

Tears are still blurring my vision - I am sorry but i can't put into words what I was / am feeling. The squalor these people live in, the disease, the lack of education, the way children and women are treated in India, and what a difference the charity are making. What a difference we have already made through donating money to Action Aid - I pound here travels 100 times the distance it does in the UK. 5 pounds is enough for a months wage for one of these workers.

It's after Christmas, everyone is skint, but if you do find a pound under the sofa please think about the children and women in this slum, and think what a small amount of money can do for them.

PS Will try and get a computer than is strong enough for pics soon.....

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Long and winding road

Bundi - Udaipur
(More india pics - click and enjoy)

‘Show me the real India’ I call to the new quiet road I have taken from my last town filled with foreign tourists, Indian tourists (“domestic tourism is very popular these days” – said with lots of waggling of head in sing song voice), and locals who would sell their own mother to a tourist for the right price (“best mother in all of India – I give you good price” – with more head waggling)

First there’s the dusty red roads cutting between rock formations that wouldn’t look out of place in the Australian outback. Somehow bright yellow rape seed (Canewdon’s finest export) manages to flourish here leaving a wonderful smell and contrast with the red rocks. The red turns to bright lush green as agriculture kicks in – extensive and complex irrigation streams are cut into the earth to make it possible. A friend camped in one of these fields – at two in the morning his tent was floating in half a foot of water :o) he just lay back down and enjoyed his waterbed – us cyclists get tired you know. It then turns to palm tree jungle bejeweled with pink and red flowers.

I stop to get coke and crisps (this constitutes my breakfasts after recent bouts of sickness of the ‘oh no, how do I get to reception to call the ambulance without leaving a nasty trial’ variety) and all business in the village stops. Grown men simply stop in the street and stare, motorbikes pull over with anything up to 4 additional passengers, children practice their spattering of English – these villages don’t see westerners very often. You can normally tell how long it is since a foreigner has been around by the age limit of the children that burst into tears at the sight of the ‘white devil’. Normally 3-6 yrs. “TV?” You ask. “Money is for food, time is for working in the fields”, I respond – yes, unfortunately the kids too.

For someone who loves children and often finds their company more appealing than adults I find this experience surprisingly rewarding. I’m the only white man these children have EVER seen. Normally a few massive smiles and songs can prise them away from behind their fathers legs but any fast movements on my behalf sends them scuttling again.

Whilst I chat to the kids the gathering gets bigger and bigger. By now I can’t see anything other than eyes peering at me. If I eat lunch it remains this way until I pick my bike back up and push my way through, being as polite as possible in my basic Hindi. Having people watch you eat – not the nicest thing normally – if they weren’t there I’d be lonely nowadays!!

On one occasion in a very small shop in the middle of nowhere I’d made friends with the girl and boy (after the crying stopped by giving them both polystyrene aeroplanes). I was sitting back enjoying watching them play nicely in the quiet when a man appears on my right. He’s staring at me but in a slightly different way. He seems to be looking in my ear. ‘Dirty?’ He pulls out his little wooden box and before I can say ‘Please don’t put that painfully long needle into my ears he has already pulled out his first potato. After several more potatoes – it’s been a good harvest this year – he says I need medicine, pours it into my ears and then shakes my head one way and then the other – tweezers are then extracted and he pulls something looking like my ear drum out. Repeated procedure in the other ear has given me 20:20 hearing :oD – now when the bus hoots it’s horn it hurts my head even more – great! All the while the kids were throwing planes at me and the ‘super long needle near my eardrum’ man.

At another I stop for a quick rest a cow in front of me does the dew right by my feet. I woman whips out of the nearest hut and scoops it up and makes it into what can only be described as a huge chocolate button. It’s then left on the house or road side to dry and used as fuel in the houses. Particularly keen gatherers have villages that look like something from Hansel and Gretel – chocolate button houses!!! They look good enough to eat!! (Dad, when you come out you are forbidden to try and throw one as a discus – you (or unlucky bystanders) won’t be so lucky the second time!!

Then (7 or 8 days later) I find my way onto a highway again. 6 lanes of traffic. The outside lane normally for the speeding vehicles is filled with cows (with horns as big as there legs) – it’s a cows life here in India – if they want to hang out in the fast lane they damn well do it and no amount of hooting of horns will budge them. The next lane is fairly normal – for an Asian road. Just very fast moving traffic swerving left and right. The third and outside lane is the most interesting. Really I should say there are 8 lanes, the outside lane is used as two way traffic. In one direction (one would normally say the wrong direction) you can see herds of cow / goats / sheep, bikes, tuktuks, rampaging buses, trucks, motorbikes, industrial vehicles, camels, the odd elephant and carts, in the other direction (the correct direction) is the odd tuktuk, banished from the faster lanes by a careering bus, and a lone English cyclist fighting tooth and nail for his little strip of tarmac, and his life. Kicking, pushing, and punching other motorists to keep his pathway clear. Then you have the boys throwing stones, the loads falling from trucks, the trucks themselves toppling, people jumping into the road on pan fueled craziness (these guys normally get a very fine hand-off or shoulder in the chest (bike rugby is big in India)). Yes, this is the main highway between Delhi and Mumbai.

I’ve got a good spot and I’m charging ahead at about 30k – I’m feeling great. Coming in the opposite direction a guy on a motorbike pulls over. ‘Stop Stop Stop’ he says. I drop my shoulder ready, but no this sounds serious. ‘Stop stop please’. I pull up – ‘Has someone been hurt? Can I help?’ A pause for a moment…….. His voice is no longer high pitched and panicked but turned a little meek and mild………… ‘What country?’ What friggin country? – I’ll box your ears boy!!! And get back on the bike.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Boring art lesson

Another quick link to keep the smiles on Year 3 (now 4's) faces

Colour of India

Colour of India
(Remember to click on all photos to see more...)
India continues to keep me on my toes. I sat for a moment in Agra only to be greeted by a holy man who blessed me, kissed my hand then went to kiss it again and bit it!! Drawing a little blood. Before I could even begin to decide whether to be cross or thankful a monkey jumped from high above onto a electric power pylon. The pylon exploded sending lightning all around and 3 very large explosions (luckily the monkey scampered off) and when I looked around the holy man had disappeared. A group of school children dressed in beautiful blue uniforms caught my eye and we walked up the steps near by to the school taking pictures and conversing in separate languages. When I got up there a group of men 5 metres away beckoned me over but I was too busy with the children and monkeys to py them any attention. The school had a wonderful view of the Taj Mahal, I thought how lucky these children were, but on closer inspection they also had a great view of the men injecting heroin into their crutch and legs. The above happened within the space of about 2 minutes.

One minute India is beautiful, A Ma Zing, magical, tantalising, the next its nasty, repulsive, vile, angry but before you know it it’s back to being mystical, tender, wonderful, breathtaking.

Men on motor bikes think it’s fun to ride into my handle bars and wheels, buses play with our lives like a baby with a ragdoll, children throw stones at our heads, men make dirty homosexual hand gestures towards me.

These men grow up surrounded by men, starved of female attention, then are forced to marry a women they don’t even know, who could end up being a bit of a minger, or not your type at all. Totally different interests they end up despising each other. Is it any wonder they turn to each other for affection and love? And I guess a white, milky bar kid is a new delight.

In fact we’ve noticed an inverse correlation between the number of women in a village and the levels of aggression in the men. More women less aggression and visa versa.

In Pakistan the women were not allowed to leave the house. In India they are forced to do all the work. They mix cement, they carry huge burdens on their heads (whilst men walk along side), they work in the fields (whilst men sit and chat reprimanding them now and again for not working hard enough).

A super attractive girl blew me a kiss today. What a highlight. It was my closest encounter with the female form in months and it felt GOOD!! I was ready to settle down, get married and have kids within the month :o) Kevin (irish guy cycling round the world) dragged me away (be it kicking and screaming) and got me to our current destination Bundi – I’m glad he did. A bustling town drenched in colour, surrounded by a ancient palace in the hills and a putrid lake on the other side.

We went tiger hunting yesterday. Shooting only with cameras. We saw monkeys, all sorts of birds, deer, a leopard kill, crocodiles – but no tigers.

I’ll keep my eyes peeled except when I’m camping. If I hear a roar when I’m in my tent I’m going to hide in my sleeping bag and hope for the best. (After kung fu chopping the little blighter and then giving him a judo throw to the ground of course – I’m a tough guy, you know that).

Never put your camera down, never take your eye of the road – India is very much alive and not afraid to show it.

The sickness....

I stop at a café. As soon as I do the flies descend upon me dragging themselves away from the cocking pots and utensils. Birdlife freely pecks at the food lying around.

During the day I’d seen the meat hung from pegs in the midday heat. Do they wrap it in flies to preserve it? I’m suddenly vegetarian again.

After washing the pots with the brown water, the cook brings over my food with his thumb in my dal. He removes it and wipes it on his ‘never been washed’ apron.

There’s nowhere to wash your hands and my soapless spray mum bought me is deep in my panniers, buried beneath everything I own. As I dip my hand into my food to take my first bite I think of the hundreds of hands I have shaken since waking today and the number of people I have seen doing number 2’s by the side of the road (no toilet paper – this is a hands on approach). I’m repulsed for a second but my hunger from a days cycling gets the better of me.

A mouse scuttles from beneath my chair and a swollen pussing rat lies in the gutter along with the rubbish, that is also covered in flies, which is being eaten by the cows that are also covered in flies.

It’s hard to believe I know but I’m sick.

What is even harder to believe is it’s not vomiting and diarrhoea. I have man flu!! How? Why? When???

Monday, 7 December 2009

Last border crossing and India so far

India so far
The Pakistan / India border is a very fragile one. Both countries claim Kashmere as there own, killings are common, fighting is continuous and both refer to the other as ‘the enemy’. There is one border post on a 2000km border for crossing from one country to the other.

You can imagine the tension that a traveller feels when he approaches this border. The adrenaline that runs through his veins, muscles tort, eyes watching every move, ears listening for the trigger being cocked……

It’s the feelings I experience when watching horror films…. waiting for the blood to flow. What one doesn’t expect when you get to the border is a carnival atmosphere and circus enacted with school boy competitiveness. It’s more like a Disney cartoon.

It’s nuts!!! Who can kick the highest, who can make a single note without breathing for the longest, who can put up the flag the quickest. It happens every day. And it’s so friendly you’d think the two sides were best buddies. But underpinning all this frivolity is a deep undercurrent. To the North especially people are being killed in gun fights and both sides are blaming the other for explosions in cities – it’s a nasty situation.

So through border control you go and when you pop out the other side you a greeted by green lush foliage, birds flying - i wanted to go back and see if the grey Pakistani side had changed too? One thing remained the same – the friendliness of the people. 5k down the road we were at a wedding singing and dancing with the locals. The colours of the mens turbans intoxicated me, or was it the whisky they plied us with? Men wearing colour – I hadn’t seen this for some time now and it felt wonderful.

We then stayed at the golden temple for a night, I had to wear my first turban today. Thousands of people are welcomed to this temple every day. It doesn’t matter what your faith is, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, it doesn’t matter what colour you skin is. You are fed, watered (all prepared by volunteers), allowed to wash in the holy water (that others then choose to drink??) and then invited to sleep there. This is my kind of religion.

That feeling that I was in love reappeared – the country is sumptuous. One day later you can see a totally different side. Getting to the cities you pass through the slums where people are living in huts erected using sticks and polythene bags, sifting through rubbish to find food, or to collect enough plastic to sell to earn enough money to get food. People lying in the street sleeping – it’s getting warmer but it’s still very cold at night here. These people take hours to stop shaking the following morning. (Please please help by giving any spare change to ActionAid so they can help these people

The previous night we had a rat in the room which clambered up the curtains and jumped from point to point. Then there was the bed bugs. Biting and savaging our bodies. We’ve also had lizards which we welcome to keep the mozzies at bay and mould of the scariest nature – it’s tentacles could grab you and drag you to your doom??! Ergh…

You then enter the cities and the smog is unbelievable – it was like sucking an exhaust. Maybe worse. You could perhaps see 5m ahead and make out shapes up to 50m. Cars lights are like lazers in discos cutting through the smog like light sabers. The setting sun was snatched into the mist like a fish catching surface flies. I have a gas mask which is now blackened, we wore then all night… we even tried poking cigarette filters up our noses to filter the air.

This night I couldn’t sleep. The bugs were bigger than ever (everything is big here – the cows are frighteningly large like dinosaurs – truly, no joke. They are huge!!), they kept jumping on my face (the bugs not the cows), landing in my eyes sockets, into my beard and hair. I would grab them and crush them between my fingers with tremendous force making sure they didn’t bother me again. I guess I was a little used to them and i was sharing a room with Sander (my buddy from Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and now again India), Nisa (Gorgeous Turkish girl with enough energy to power an India city – with no power cuts) and Aron (an Estonian who maintained the most caring and happy nature even when projectile vomiting) – so I didn’t want to switch on the light.

The next morning I dashed to the loo and then on the way out caught my reflection in the mirror. I had maggots in my beard and hair and on my face. My pillow and bed was covered with them. They had been dropping from some rotten woodwork just above my pillow. They hadn’t been jumping they’d been falling.

On a lighter note, when biking it is also typical for the people to stop and stare. They don’t speak. Eyes on us, they just stand there and watch. It made me a little uncomfortable as though we were supposed to entertain them. So that’s exactly what I did. I’d do a little jig, some juggling, whisk Nisa off her feet with some ballroom dancing, sing a song – then take Sanders cap and ask them for money. There reactions were hilarious. Some fled, some crossed there arms to protect themselves. But the majority just kept watching. We tried a second method of getting rid of them – swine flu. Bursting into coughs, sneezes, wiping our nose whilst apologising for bringing the flu into their country. It worked a treat!!! :o)

Explaining that Sander and I are Albanian brothers from the circus has also been fun. Sword swallowers, knife throwing (I only sometimes make mistakes). Or escaped criminals - bank robbers and murderers. Sander never fails to remind the local people that if the monkeys start falling out of the tree it’s too hot.

All in all I’m really enjoying India but am looking forward to cycling through the nature reserves in a couple of days after Agra and the Taj Mahal for some clean air and some peace and quiet.

Music and nature (few videos)

A few videos for your perusal.

The beauty of Northern Pakistan, and then a couple of videos of the Sufi music that is so famous across the country. Note the lesson in turban wearing, a grown man crying, raining money, a very handsome man in a striped chalwa camiz, and some friggin awesome tunes.

Few videos from Pakistan

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Bikes in India

There are hundreds of cycles in india. The majority being the 3 wheeled Rikshaw. Hence there are lots of bikes shops - not quite Bicycle standard or Sigma sport but they do the job (welding, adhoc screwing etc).

We took a ride with a rikshaw driver in one of the cities but it was too much pain watching him struggle with Sander and I, so I made him stop and to his bewilderment pushed him into the seat at the back and jumped on the pedals. Chaos ensued as people fort to watch the idiot in a skirt with a bad hair cut cycling a local bike. But no different to normal road conditions really!!