And so it ends….

Time’s up, Mr Riddell. The visa is coming to an end and Melbourne is calling. Back in November I came here to see whether I’d be able to cope for what I’ve called the Long Haul. 01 June 2014 was so far away and there was so much I could see from that distance that could be achieved. When I finally arrived back in January for that Long Haul it was cold and miserable, the bed needed double blankets and school was such a dark and dismal place on some days I couldn’t even see the kids in the back row of class.

It’s now in the low to mid 40’s every day, we can’t get enough chilled/frozen water to cool us down. In fact, it’s hard to get enough water some days with the supply generally not being available until late in the afternoon when the Colony then echoes to the whir of water pumps up and down the streets. Coupled with the patter of my little feet off to the English Wine & Beer shop for a chilled Fosters! We have ceiling fans but no air conditioning where we live although on the odd occasion we’ve been exposed to air con in the bedrooms upstairs or through a Metro trip/Shopping Centre visit. It’s made the heat that much harder to cope with; that wall of heat when you walk out of the cold air almost takes your breath away. Our days of going into the hostel to play with the kids each evening around 5:00pm are now rare events; by that time we’re exhausted and hanging out for the water to come on so we can shower to cool down.

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With Merry and Jeremiah; what they’ve managed to do, starting from nothing and with so little is an inspiration

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Last day of school and a lovely farewell for all of us – sweating it out under the tree!

But in spite of that we’ve still managed some incredible times with the kids. A late morning visit to the hostel earlier in the week brought all kids out for water fights and plenty of fun on the roof. A couple of days later we took them all off to the movies to see one of the latest Bollywood creations. Full of pathos, very bad acting, very bad props, musical numbers for no reason and editing that would leave Peter Jackson weeping, it was fantastic. The kids repeated the lines, they sang along, they talked to the actors and all the while were so well behaved and just a pleasure to be with. Followed up by ice cream at home, hopefully a morning that they won’t forget because we sure won’t!

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“I’m not sure they’re your glasses are they, Prakash?”

So. Has it been worth it? If I measure it in terms of achievements then definitely. A school timetable in place (for now), draft business plans in place for a new school and orphanage. A Government submission is awaiting approval for full funding for the Orphanage Opex. A Business Plan completed for a new Adoption Agency and now submitted. Jeremiah is flushed with pride that he can now use Excel though Aakash is giving him a run for his money when it comes to speed of learning!

Parvez can swim, Shivam can sort of swim. Kids know that writing Hindi characters in English classes is not acceptable. Aakash knows there is no honour in cheating. And that lying to cover your actions (or lying, full stop) doesn’t cut it with Sir ji. Kids that rarely, if ever, get a hug from an adult have had more hugs than you can count. Though not just from me, from all the volunteers. Hitting of children appears to have been stopped (again, possibly just for now). Parvez and Aakash now have a laptop to share and help them with their schooling and to get them a step closer to being the scientists they want to be.

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If I count through the things I’m going to miss I use up both sets of fingers, both feet and then some. Starting with the kids (obviously). Their hugs, their smiles, their joy at just being alive and playing. The feeling I get walking up the stairs to the hostel to a chorus of “Hiii, Sir! Hiiii, Peter” with hugs, High 5’s and handshakes all ‘round. I then range through the smells I’ll miss, the noise, the chaos, the heat, the dust, the filth. The beggars, the food, the other volunteers. The Metro crush, the stares which break into a smile as soon as I stare back, wiggle my head and smile. Merry’s kali chai made with ginger and some sugar. The random acts of kindness from strangers, the aggression as well as patience displayed by people that comes with living in an over populated city of 25 million and a country of 1.2bn people.

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I’m certainly going to miss these two boys! Bikash and Prakash.

And what am I not going to miss? The smells, the sounds, the noise, the chaos, the heat, the dust, the filth, the chaos that comes with living in an over populated city of 25 million and a country of 1.2bn people. The beggars, the food. Semi toasted white bread only ever served with one type of fruit “jam”. I won’t miss the queues (a term used loosely), Indian time keeping, the Indian way of having a complete lack of spatial awareness while walking the streets, the lies, the half truths and vagaries of trying to get an answer to the simplest things.

I won’t miss the traffic, the horns, the total disregard for road rules other then I’m on the road so I rule. “After sometime”, “I’ll just go and come again” and “after just 5 minutes, Sir”. Although I have to say I’ve acclimatised to the words, “No, Sir, no internet today, but maybe after sometime” It just leave me shrugging my shoulders and walking away smiling. It’s a metaphor for the whole country.

With luck the new PM, Narendra Modi, will be able to somehow harness this country that’s lurching out of control towards controlled anarchy and manage in the coming years to steer it towards a more positive future. The wealthy are obscenely wealthy, the poor just keep bubbling along desperate for any crumb they’re thrown and the gap between the two widens daily. There is something intrinsically wrong with a country where a woman (our housekeeper/cook) sleeps in a shanty on the side of a busy road with her four children under 6 and has to leave them on their own to play in the dirt while she comes to work. Corruption, tax evasion and overt support for illegal activities ensures the inequity will continue for many years to come.

The religious tensions simmer away below the surface and coupled with a large enough percentage of the populace still holding on to the hangovers of Caste, it’s a volatile mix. Neru’s vision of a secular and open society is long dead. Although they’re currently lonely voices in the media there are predictions of violence and a coming civil war that will leave Partition looking like a small infraction. May that day never come.

I’ll be back here as soon as I can and for as long as I can.

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

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Mooching around Mountains and Monasteries.

Isn’t this definitely a country of contrasts. Not just between North and South but even within a single State. This last fortnight has been spent travelling through Ladakh and Srinagar in Kashmir in a bid to avoid the Delhi heat. Both are extremely beautiful parts of India and yet as diverse as one could imagine. Ladakh is barren where it appears that nothing but rocks and poplar trees grow. Very sunny, clear but cold and sparse. Whereas the Srinagar Valley and locale is lush and green with weather swinging between warm and sunny to wet, foggy and very cold in a matter of minutes.

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Leh

And along the way I’ve been subjected again to the complete paranoia and fear that now engulfs air travel within India. Security is fine, I can accept that but the Indians take it to an extreme when it comes to air travel.

Take leaving Leh as an example. Firstly there is the security check to get into the terminal where you have to show your passport and e-ticket (standard in every airport). Srinagar they go one better, you get a security check at the entrance to the airport where you have to put the bags through an x-ray before you can even set foot in the airport. The ticket is read from top to bottom by the army/security personnel. Giving it to them on your iPad or iPhone guarantees an even closer check. From there we queue to put all luggage, including hand luggage, through an X-ray. Indians are not renowned for their queuing etiquette so this is a challenge in patience which is then topped off by queuing for check-in. It would try the patience of the Dali Lama.

Through to the next security screening where firstly the boarding pass and passport are examined with scientific intensity before being thoroughly frisked. Even my iPhone has to be removed from my pocket and tested (this is a first) and yet amazingly, the laptop and iPad are allowed to be left in the bag when going through X-ray number 2. At least I scored a smile at this screening when he aggressively ran his hands across my still battered and bruised knee following my scooter mishap. Wincing and muttering an obscenity brought a very fast end to proceedings and I limped away.

Next comes the 2nd baggage identification for the morning. One has to go outside (boarding pass closely inspected in case you’ve somehow made it past all previous inspections with no documentation) and identify the same bag that one has already identified at the first X-ray and again at check-in. The tags are ticked off and the bag released for loading.

Then comes the boarding call. Passport and boarding pass again closely examined at the door to the tarmac and hand baggage checked for having a tag on and stamped with the current date. No matter the size of the aircraft and number of passengers, there is only ever one army person doing this so boarding any aircraft is a slow process. This is then followed by checking off the sequence number on the boarding pass before yet another scan and check of boarding pass done by a further member of the armed forces. All this before boarding the bus to take us the 50m to the aircraft where at the foot of the stairs they finally tear the stub off the boarding pass. It then comes as quite a relief that the cabin crew blithely ignore you as you board, secure in the knowledge that after 5 security checks you’re clean.

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Nubra Valley

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At the top of the World’s highest motorable road

Ladakh is extraordinarily beautiful. Some of the country reminded me of the back blocks of Canterbury in New Zealand though on a much larger scale. NZ on steroids, the mountains reached to around 8,000m with Leh being at 3,500m. The silence, the fresh air, the sparseness of the land with barely a tree or any other vegetation growing outside of the town. A trip over the highest motorable road in the world takes us to Nubra Valley and a night’s camping. Remote, silent, surrounded by massive mountains on all sides, a beautiful destination. And as one would expect from such a remote area as Leh, “No Sir, the internet is down today, Sir. But tomorrow, we will have”. Tomorrow we didn’t have. Wi-Fi definitely now forms the base of Maslo’s Hierarchy of Needs just below breathing, food and water; without it we’re lost.

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Monasteries galore

Srinagar and Kashmir were quite a different destination. At first glance Srinagar reminded me of Christchurch with the Poplar trees and massive Oak and Elm trees lining the streets, provided you don’t look at the litter, the dogs, the traffic or the crumbling infrastructure. The houseboat in Srinagar on Nageel Lake didn’t disappoint. (Dal Lake itself is now very crowded with over 200 boats. Nageel lake is a lot quieter and I was told preferred by Europeans). The houseboat was straight out of the Raj but only 35 years old; it was warm and very comfortable with a view to die for. Unfortunately only 1 night but a small taste before heading up to Pahalgam about 3 hours away.

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OK view, I suppose?

Pahalgam is a tourist mecca however it left me quite underwhelmed due to the crowds and the aggressive touts pushing you for pony rides or to buy pashminas. Even an agreed Rs20 for a snack from a stall ends up with demands for more money and words muttered when I refused. The weather closed in at this point and with limited to no heating in the hotel (“It’s May, Sir, no, no heating needed”) it wasn’t quite the relaxing break I’d hoped.

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Pahalgam Valley

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Gulmarg. Not a day for looking at the views

More rain back down in Srinagar meant a severely curtailed sightseeing trip up to Gulmarg and some major compromises in the itinerary to accommodate the weather. The last day brought beautiful sunshine and a drive up to Narnagan Valley. Ignored by Indian tourists, it was deserted with the exception of the villagers, me and my escorts plus 3 students from Monash who were off trekking. Simply beautiful, the day was a highlight.

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Narnagan Valley

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Dal Lake

Something I’ve noticed with Indians is their ability to keep telling you a story 2, 3 or 4 times without any acknowledgement of your questions or interjections. Or based on your initial question, they will go off on a tirade they will keep reiterating their main point until you just want to scream at them to please just shut up. Whether it’s the Hindi language or how they’ve been taught English but Indians love to talk at you, not with you. The first telling of a story will be interesting and then a chance comment or question in the days/weeks (sometimes hours) to come will get them back on the same topic. I’ve noticed it with many of the Indians I speak to from Jeremiah through to tour guides and chance meetings in airports or hotels. A quiet walk through the hills in Gulmarg entailed me being talked at in regards to my guides experience and his rattling off the countries from where he’d drawn his other victims. Twice.

And now, back to Delhi for 5 days in the city and then back to Faridabad for the final 10 days. So much to do, so much to talk about with Jeremiah and the kids, so little time.

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Dal Lake, away from the crowds at last.

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Life in the land of lies, untruths, vague comments and fallacies

OK, it’s starting to get hot. And by that it’d be the sort of weather that in Melbourne has us reaching for the gin and tonic and the air conditioning whilst the Metro collapses into a useless piece of static “transportation”. Jeremiah assures me this is nothing yet and to wait until it gets to the mid 40’s. Umm, Jeremiah, that’d be now? Each day is forecast to be between 43-45 for the foreseeable future. So yes, I can wait, I’m in no rush to experience that and so from tomorrow I’m checking out for a couple of weeks and heading for the hills.

At this juncture I’m starting to count down the days. At the time of writing I have about 31 days left until I board the great silver bird to reach the land of wine and friendships. Mixed feelings, definitely. Taught my last class this morning and gave them a chapter from Winnie the Pooh. “Tomorrow when I am not here..” and talked about being strong and brave and smart. For once, I had almost the whole classes attention for the full 45 mins, Roshan didn’t breathe a word unless spoken to and even if only 4-5 kids “got” what I was talking about, then I’m happy.

The weekend across 25-28 April has been a huge bonding session with two of the boys from Year 6, Parvez and Shivam. The trip was the prize they won for the two best English essays written based on what I’d taught in the last few months. The weekend went far better than I could have hoped. The boys were obviously extremely excited and behaved themselves brilliantly the whole time. They breed polite kids here in India. Maybe it’s all the beating and whipping?

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Effalumps up to Amber Fort. A highlight among a weekend of nights.

The first night Shivam slept in my room with Parvez in Victoria’s but from there both boys wanted to sleep in my room so they crawled into the one bed. It was more fun being with Sirji!!

Beside seeing the fort, the elephant ride and Jandar Mantar, the highlight for all of us was the pool at the hotel. The boys came to the hotel quite unable to do anything other than jump around in the water and make a lot of noise with associated splashing. By the time we left Parvez ( I call him the Professor) could swim the length of the pool (with 2 stops for breath). To see the look on his face when he managed his first full lap just made my trip. He was so proud of himself and seeing how he just plugged away time after time until he mastered it makes me think this kid is destined for some great things.

Shivam didn’t manage the swimming quite as well but he gave it his best shot. He had a ball just splashing around and trying though he lacked the coordination of the Professor.

Breakfast on Day 2 was one of those moments I’ll never forget. We were a bit early for our driver and it was almost 8:15. I said to the boys we were early and then asked them what had happened at 8:00 that morning? I don’t know, Sir. I was in the shower? No, Parvez. I think they opened the pool.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child’s face light up in quite the way that Parvez’s did in that instance. It was electric. His eyes almost popped out of his skull and the kids were down in that pool within minutes. Luckily no-one was in the way as they raced downstairs.

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So proud! A big thumbs up for having managed to swim, unaided, across the pool!

School is now back for this strange period between exams and the start of holidays’ on 20 May. It’s hot, often the fans break down so there is no air circulating, the kids can’t focus fully, most of them are without books because Mum or Dad has refused to pay for them and it seems to generally be a fill in time. No idea what the regular teachers have been teaching (but then that’s not really new?) but the remaining volunteers and I have been giving them as much creative work as possible to keep them active.

Attendance is a fickle thing. Kids will come for 3 days then take a few days off. Many are away in their Villages, several just can’t be bothered so it’s always interesting to walk into class in the morning and see who may or may not have turned up. Even Aakash has been quietly drifting in around 8:15 but to his credit, after a quiet chat a couple of nights ago he’s lifted his game.

A new school timetable has been drawn up (there are some new teachers), a business plan is in place for both a new school and the new orphanage (the building of which has stalled due to lack of further funding) and decent English, Maths and Science books purchased to teach from. So there are a few ticks from the last 5 months effort. This has also been an interesting exercise in working out how to get the truth out of people (or at least what can be assumed is the truth?).

When asking a question the first answer you’ll be given will be delivered emphatically and with very sincere conviction. Wait 48hrs and ask the question again. Version 2 is given emphatically and with solid conviction, though generally a variation on the first response. Wait a further 48-72 hours and ask again and version 3 is then the answer. Without much conviction but given in a way as to suggest I’d only imagined the previous two answers. It has been in this way I’ve found out many things. Conversations that needed to be had have not occurred and meetings planned have not gone ahead. Money destined for one purpose has been used for another and people who’re just “going then coming” are in fact, not coming. I’m currently in the middle of a he said/she said with both parties looking straight faced and telling me the truth. It could be my hearing, do you think?

And what is it with Indian’s and how they can’t tell you someone’s name in a discussion? “Peter, we need to meet with that woman, she is come”. “Peter, that man, he is the one to speak to. You know the one, he is in that place?” “I do not know where he is; only now he has gone to see that man but he will be back after sometime”.

Hopefully some my comments and discussions with Jeremiah will also lead to a cessation of the sort of thing I had to witness the other morning at school. The kids were all lined up for assembly going through the lecture from Sabir about how Oxygen is the most important thing coupled with reading the question before answering is the most important thing and followed up by clean fingernails being the most important thing. In the middle of all this a small kid (in our school uniform) runs past the front gate screaming, closely followed by his father with a bamboo stick (not just a switch but a full on stick). Said child was beaten and then when he was dragged back to the school gate, a further 3-4 firm thwacks from the bamboo stick were administered for good measure. I’m quietly bringing up my breakfast while this is happening and the other teachers are smiling and pretending to not notice. Jeremiah has since spoken to the father who was annoyed because he was late for work and little Duleep didn’t want to go to school. I’m trying to get Jeremiah to make MCS the small oasis where beating and hitting will not be tolerated by teachers or parents and in years the kids from this school will learn how to treat their kids. This rubbish about “It’s India, Peter, this is how we do it” is the greatest cop out. Frankly, it’s crap.

The Wingman managed to clip a wing a few weeks back as I mentioned in my last blog. We’d left the boys playing at the school in the evening and within minutes he’d fallen out of the tree. Just a small fracture but enough to have him in plaster for a month. Interesting that when I asked what happened I got a made up story about how he fell playing football with Vivek even giving a demonstration. The papers from the hospital said a little more clearly “fell out of tree”. When I asked Aakash about this a few days later and why he’d lied, he told me he didn’t want me to know the truth because he was worried that I’d be worried, immediately rendering a fracture from football as being far less serious than a fracture from climbing a tree. But it was a good chance for a little chat about honesty and the downside of lying.

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You can imagine that the colour of the cast now is closer to a dull white?

Off to cooler climes tomorrow. A week up in Ladakh for some fresh air followed by a week in Srinagar and Kashmir. Though I’m carrying a little more baggage than planned. Due to the heat yesterday I made a decision to ride the scooter into the school for a meeting with Jer. and the teachers. But being honest, it was more stupidity and being in a rush than the heat. Having not ridden a scooter for a couple of years I thought, how hard can this be? Ummm, fairly hard actually. Especially on uneven, crowded Indian dirt roads in slums. A small lack of hand/brain coordination saw the bike going one direction and me going the other. Nothing broken but a very badly dented sense of pride! And enough scrapes and cuts to keep the local Pharmacist happy for a few days from all my purchases of plasters, bandages and creams.

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PARVEZ ALAM’S STORY IN JAIPUR

Hello! I am student and my teachers are very intelligent. I have come in Jaipur with my two teacher for three nights.They are best teachers and they teaches us very well. We enjoyed that time.

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A new school year begins. Or does it?

Well wasn’t the first week of school a really fun time, full of structure and discipline with the school running like a well oiled machine? Not. However, since writing this I was told that this is the norm for many schools in India; month one of the new school year is quite laid back and potentially non-productive.

School started again after the exams on 31 March. I was away in Amritsar but it turned out it wasn’t an issue that they were one teacher down because school didn’t actually start. The other Volunteers didn’t know why and no explanation was given. All the books had been delivered but were still sitting in the downstairs apartment and it seems nothing else was achieved.

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Not quite in the syllabus but Celia takes it upon herself to teach some of the kids a few slick steps

School then started again on 01 April with all kids (or at least those who showed up) sitting in their existing classrooms. Books were taken down to the office and then…… enter Mister Blitzo. Never one to hold back, I figured it was time to get to work here. We had a working bee with some of the kids and Volunteers to sort all the books into the right years and piles ready for the parents who, I’d been told, were coming that day to collect them. Strangely by early afternoon Mary hadn’t appeared and no parent had shown their face either.

While I was in Amritsar the Volunteers met with Jeremiah and sorted out who was moving up in class and who was staying. Or so we thought. Teachers were supposed to have spoken to said students and parents but, umm, no. Mary starts quizzing me, should this boy go up, should this girl stay, she is no good, what do I think, always she is lazy. Now this classroom, what do I think, always she is poor at her work, who do I want in this class, what about this boy? Wow. I don’t really know, Mary, have you looked at their exam results and made any decisions based on those results?

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Kids and volunteers doing an awesome job sorting out all the books for the parents who never came.

When I asked where the parents were who were to come and start collecting the books I was told Oh, no, they will not come today, maybe after some time. All neatly stacked piles of books were then moved into the office and unfortunately much of the kids hard work helping us has gone down the drain.

Day 3 (or was it 2?) of the school year and time to get some teaching underway. Mister Blitzo decided someone needed to manage this place and so the kids were moved to their new classes; the smaller kids from UKG (Upper Kindergarten) were moved across to the main school and we had some structure, seats allocated, smiling kids all around. Almost. I left the village kids in their usual Year regardless of whether they were to be held back or not in case their parents hadn’t been spoken to. But I did move one of the orphans back a year as had been discussed. However, this was news to said boy who then broke down in tears and there were loud protestations from Sabir-sir about how a student must never be held back. Never!!! Oh, dear. Time for one of Babli-ji’s nice calm down cups of chai, I think. Mary then told the boy what was happening but he is now totally ignoring me so I guess I’ve copped the blame for that one.

Anyway, we sort of have some structure, a couple of parents have bought the books and by the end of the week we were holding some classes. There are two new teachers at school, Ajay and his son, Ranjan. Ajay is Samuel’s tutor and is a very nice man, Ranjan is his son and equally nice. Ranjan also speaks really good English. Hallelujah and pass the tambourines, we have someone other than a Volunteer who can speak English!!! Guess who’s about to become the school’s English teacher? Sorry, Sabir-sir. Smiling at me and thanking me when I’m telling you one of your grandchildren is disruptive in class shows your command of the Mother tongue is limited.

And thus, we entered week two of the new school year. And what a week that has turned out to be. Class on Monday morning but with only limited books having been bought, it was more a review day but we were prepared for the rest of the week. Until Mary announces late Monday that school is closed for 3 days due to a Hindu festival followed by the Elections which were held in Delhi on 10 April. With no notice, it was too late for anyone to do anything other than sit around and quietly wish we were teaching!!

As a break and to escape Cabin Fever I took Aakash, Parvez and one of the other smaller boys, Ritesh, up to the Science Museum for the day. Having been there a couple of years ago I’m pleased to say the displays are still much the same (they’ve taken down the population counter in the foyer; burnt out, perhaps?) and the dust that is gathering on many of the displays adds to the experience. The boys just wanted to press as many buttons as they could, as fast as they could before we headed out so the visit took us roughly 45 mins.

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The Science Centre’s hugely accurate replica of life on the Delhi Metro. Sans the crowds and body odour

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A quick photo op between button pressing duties

That’s probably Aakash’s last outing for a couple of weeks. On Thursday evening we left the older boys, Aakash and Kanhaiya playing at the school and climbing in the tree. Within minutes it appears that Aakash had a quick lesson in the laws of gravity with the result he fractured his wrist as the ground broke his fall. Got up on Friday morning to see him sitting on the bed looking a bit sorry for himself. India not being a country where things are done by halves, for a minor fracture his arm is done up in very thick and heavy plaster from above the elbow to the knuckles. I’m assuming for an actual break he would be in a half body cast from neck to waist.

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In just a few minutes, Aakash’s view of the world would change for the worse. That’s the risk of being a teenage boy, I guess

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My trip to the zoo.

Today we went to the Zoo. It was fun. There was Sir-ji and Celia-ma’am. And Victoria-ma’am and Syd-Sir. And Alice-ma’am. And Aakash. And Kanhaiya. And Mumtaj. And Prakash. And another Aakash, the middle one with the really lovely smile. We got on the Metro. It was the first time Mumtaj and Prakash and Aakash, the middle one had been on the Metro. And it was fun but there were lots of people and the men stared at the volunteers and stared at the boys. The boys were very excited and looked out of the windows. When we got to Khan Market we got off and then we got auto-rickshaws to the Zoo. It was not far away but it was fun because we had two autos and they stayed together and so we could shake hands when we stopped at the traffic lights. Because it was New Delhi we had to stop at the lights. Sir-ji said this would never happen in Old Delhi.

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At the Zoo it took a long time to buy tickets because this is India and so when there are a lot of us we have to go from queue to queue to queue. Sir-ji started to get annoyed and he said something not nice about this ***king country but it didn’t help because the man at the window still didn’t have change for Rs500 and Sir-ji had to go to another queue before he got sent back to the first queue. And the man at the gate wouldn’t let the children in because the man at the window wouldn’t give tickets. And the man at the window said the man at the gate was wrong and then there was an argument and then the two men started yelling and Sir-ji scribbled down a letter about being a school and then Victoria-ma’am bought some tickets ‘cause of the letter and then there was more yelling and then we got inside. Easy! But then the Volunteers paid more than they should because of all the yelling and the gate man and ticket man and the confusion and heat and…stuff. But it’s India and it’s incredibly amusing.

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In a small cage at the back is a large white tiger. This is the “pen” that makes up it’s domain.

The children were very excited to be at the Zoo but it was hot so we got water first and then we went looking for animals. Celia-ma’am had a map and she lead the way and she was excellent, but. Kanhaiya was always so excited to see the big animals and we knew we cold see bears and tigers and lions and elephants and snakes and all kinds of animals. Mumtaj didn’t stop jumping around and Aakash was too cool to be excited but you could tell he secretly was ‘cause he was laughing and he took Sir-ji’s camera and he kept smiling. And taking photos.

But then this is Delhi Zoo. And when we got to the cages they were empty. ☹ Or the animals were asleep in their cages. Or the grass was so big we didn’t see any animals. But Celia-ma’am was good ‘cause she had a map and she kept us on the lookout. Sir-ji got sad seeing all the animals in their cages and so did Victoria-ma’am but they knew it would always be so. Sir-ji has watched Out of Africa too many times!! Prakash got tired but Kanhaiya was still so excited. As soon as he saw an animal he’d say OK, chalo, let’s go ‘cause he wanted to see them all! But then, Sir-ji, Sir-ji, where is Lion? Sir-ji, why is there no Lion? Because there was no Lion. And no Tiger other than the White Tiger in it’s cage. And very few snakes. And only one lonely giraffe. And Sir-ji didn’t have an answer but it was hard for Sir-ji to see Kanhaiya so sad because there was no Lion. And the leopard was bored and hot but was sitting in the shade. But then the leopard in the next cage was bored and hot and still locked in the cage so he couldn’t even get out. Sir-ji wanted to go home.

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The lone giraffe.

Aakash took lots of photos on Sir-ji’s camera and not many of them were in focus so Sir-ji is going to give Aakash a lesson in photography next week, I bet! Prakash was very tired and so was Mumtaj and so was Sir-ji so we got some Auto’s to Khan Market and we found this cool kebab shop. We had kebabs and stuff but we had no rice. Sir-ji was amazed and quite expressive about this being India and said something about this ***king country and how could a restaurant in India not have rice. But I know Sir-ji loves India so he was only joking ‘cause it was hot and he must have been tired and the food was yummy and he had 2nd helping and stole some off Kanhaiya and he smiled a lot.

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I’m still not sure why Aakash wanted me to hold out my hand like this.

Then we got the Metro home and Prakash sat on Sir-ji’s knee beside Celia-ma’am and Victoria-ma’am and started to fall asleep but then he started to feel sick so Sir-ji took him off the train but Prakash wasn’t sick so he and Sir-ji got back on the next train where Prakash feel asleep in the doorway but ‘cause he’s so lovely all the mean men stepped around him to get on and off until Sir-ji found him a quiet corner where he really went to sleep. But he didn’t snore. And everyone waited for Sir-ji and Prakash at the station and when Prakash got off the train he ran to his friends to say Hi but then wanted Sir-ji to carry him to the Auto-rickshaw. Sir-ji didn’t comply past the turnstiles.

Then we got an auto rickshaw home to IP Colony and we said goodbye. It was fun but then all the Volunteers had to have a sleep ‘cause it was so hot and they were tired.

Signed,
Anon.

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The things we learn

I wonder what it is that causes this phenomenon? Two of the most striking and extraordinary buildings that I’ve seen since I’ve been in India, the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple are both located in the middle of what appears to be two of India’s dirtiest and least attractive cities. It’s as if the beauty of the two buildings has sapped the surrounding city of any of it’s own beauty so they can stand out to be even prettier and more breathtaking than they otherwise would. Would the Taj Mahal rate as highly if it were set in the middle of Paris, for example? Equally, would the Sydney Opera House stir the heart if it were set in the middle of some non-descript American or European city?

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As if either building or complex needs any help to dazzle or amaze. My first sight of Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, yesterday was one of those stop and pause moments. Not quite the impact of the Taj Mahal but within a second it was understandable how Mrs Gandhi found herself at the receiving end of a few Sikh bullets after she sent the troops back in 1984. How dare she. The white marble, the golden temple in the middle of the pond, the colours of the men’s turbans as they knelt to pray and the women’s saris all combined to give pause and think just how brilliant and alive this country is.

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Jillianwallah Bagh, scene of one of the worst massacres by the British back in 1919 and a turning point in their struggle for independence. Bullet holes protected and marked for extra emphasis.

20 things I’ve learned since I’ve been in Delhi.

1. It’s quite socially acceptable to not only hoik and cough your lungs up in the morning but to sniff, long and deeply, whenever you wish. Having a Westerner’s ear approx. 1m from your face at that time is the Westerner’s problem, not yours.

2. It’s important to always brush your teeth once a day but ensure it’s before your breakfast. How the kids still have such shiny white teeth remains a mystery.

3. When boarding a Metro, push. And dash for one of the few seats if boarding at the first station. Two men to a seat is fine; togetherness is a feature of Indian life the modern Metro won’t kill.

4. When de-boarding a train, push even harder. And a hearty shove at the guys boarding while you’re getting off has a slightly satisfying edge to it.

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5. “That’s how it is in India” is the biggest cop out this country suffers from. Whether it’s discussing how kids are punished (severely), people’s behavior in public, the traffic or any one of a hundred things, “that’s how it is in India” is used to excuse any action. Or lack of.

6. Education is the most important thing impacting India today. Coupled with carbon dioxide, fixing corruption, over-population, doing your homework and the need to provide clean water for every person which are also the most important things. Clarity of purpose is paramount.

7. The sight of a small child smiling and reaching for your hand when they’ve not seen you for 4 days fixes any headache/bad mood/frustration or concern you have. No further discussion.

8. The metal detectors at the Metro and airports are used simply to try and force men to go through one at a time rather than the usual three or four of a typical Indian queue. The perfunctory scan by the hand held detectors is equally useless. Unless carrying a replica sword when the guard helpfully points out “Sir, you have a sword! and can’t enter.

9. Freedom of thought is not able to be accommodated in the Indian educational system. Any sentence starting with “why” or “what” leaves even the strongest student quivering and just answering, “yes”. Or “Sir, Sir! India Gate, Sir!”

10. Cheating, whether in a school exam or at the highest level of Government is not punished or shown to be bad. In fact it’s rewarded and until the above mentioned “that’s how it is in India” is no longer acceptable, will always hold this country back.

11. When eating, ensure you make as many smacking, slurping and snorting noises as possible to let everyone within 10m know what you’re doing. Often coupled with deep sniffing, it’s a feature of every meal in India.

12. A kali chai made with lemon, ginger and honey beats a western cup of tea with milk hands down. Every time!!! Pinky, your ticket to Australia is almost assured if you keep making me the best cups of tea I’ve ever tasted.

13. A child needs nothing more than a stick and a small rock or stone to make a game, entertain themselves for hours and laugh themselves silly.

14. The bulk of the books used to teach English are useless for children who’ve never ridden in a car, been on a train, been to a shop to buy something or known a world outside of their slum. Jack and Jill went up the hill. “What’s a hill, Sir?”

15. It is not possible to enter a shop to look at anything without receiving close and personalised attention from which an Indian version of the tango ensues. You step forward, they step back. Repeat. Reverse and dip to get away. And there they are, in front of you again. “As my first customer today, Sir…….”.

16. The head shake is contagious. Small kick to the right = yes. Small kick to the left = no. A wag = really/wow, that’s interesting. Or maybe not.

17. There really are cows and stray dogs. Everywhere. Even in the middle of the Inner Ring Road in New Delhi. The cow was looking a little lost and trapped but it successfully blocked an entire lane.

18. Even after 2.5 months, sometimes there are smells that you pass which make your eyes water and leave you staggering and quietly muttering, “dear god, what the he*l is that??”

19. When you think your auto-rickshaw is full with 14 people, think again. There is always room for a 15th person, sometimes standing on the edge and sometimes sitting on top of someone else but there is always room.

20. Music played at anything less than 150 decibels with appropriate distortion and heavy bass is just background murmur. Additional kudos if the music comes from a moving vehicle such as auto-rickshaws where the drivers manage to fill their back shelves with speakers for full on, ear shattering impact.

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Election time in India. What’s a bit of a traffic jam when your man comes to town?

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Holi, exams, hospitals and sanity checks!

When did we last speak? Was it before I read one of the English Grammar questions for the current exams, “Write down the sound a monkey/lion/horse/tiger/dog makes”? Or was it before I had the pleasure of experiencing 4 hours in an Indian Hospital on a drip to replace the fluids lost due to a very severe case of some sort of gastro? Either way, it was a while ago. The days seem to have just taken wheels and are rocketing past with the stay now practically half done and only about 10% of what I wanted to achieve completed.

School finished up the week before last. The last week all classes seemed to have just been in a holding pattern waiting for the dreaded exams to arrive. Exam time is quite an interesting period here. The timetable allows for one 3 hour exam per day over roughly 2.5 weeks so it’s hardly onerous. I find it interesting in a land that treats it’s children so poorly in terms of punishment that they’re given just one exam per day and then the rest of the day is free to “study”. Not sure I’ve shared with you the joy of watching a 10 year old get whacked across the back of the head for a minor transgression? A heart stopping way to start a day (for me). Corporal punishment is alive and well in India in spite of the Government attempts to stamp it out. Hopefully after my protestations the Miracle School could become a corporal punishment free zone.

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A school full of children now suffering from exam stress. Not.

The 3 hour exam is written by the teachers themselves and consists of questions written in the highest form of Hinglish. “Who is the city of the place of the golden apple”? “What was Algu’s verdict as head punch?”. The children have been able to complete the exams in anything from 30 mins to an hour (it takes longer for those who stop to try and figure out the English).

We’ve spent time reviewing the English and Maths exams but it appears (as of tonight) to be to little avail. Year 5 kids today got an exam that excluded the 25% grammar that we’d written and instead asked them, for 5 marks, to write down the sound made by a dog, a lion, a horse, a tiger and a monkey. It was the first room I’d supervised and as I had 5 of the 7 Year 5 kids in the room, I told them to ignore it, gave them all 5/5 and complained to Jeremiah about nonsense questions. Even he was shaking his head.

I was particularly struck by how one of the boys kept asking me about Q3, “What is the rule of a pronoun”. I tried telling him he had to write it down himself and he was stumped, the poor kid isn’t one of the strongest performers in Year 5. So in comes Sabir Sir, student asks Sabir about the question and Sabir then answers it for him!!!

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Hema. A star in Year 3, a pleasure to teach and one of the most wonderful people in the school.

Around mid-morning last Monday I started to have that great feeling that comes with the flu. Aching joints and no energy so I took to bed. By Monday night I was calling for cold towels and Mum. The latter didn’t happen but Syd came to the rescue with cold towels. Mary insisted I should go to hospital and it was a case of over my dead body, you’re never getting me into an Indian hospital. I’ve read the magazines, I’ve seen the photos!! Tuesday better, Tuesday night not good, Wednesday morning much better and by Wednesday night, “Jeremiah, can you take me to hospital?”

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Like a photo of the supposed iceberg that sank the Titanic, is this the fruit that brought me to my knees?

It turned out to be a really decent place, great staff and 4 hours and 3.5 litres of drip later, I left. I’d particularly like to thank the Senior Nurse, Sandikand, who gouged out a large part of my right hand whilst searching for a vein (it’s right there on top, the deep purple line running up from the knuckle that you’re about to wear). Thank god for his underling, Catherine, who inserted a needle into my left hand with nothing more than a tiny ping.

In between stints managing kids in exams, testing hospitals for QA adherence and working out just who is the big city with a Marina Drive, life rolls on. The kids in the orphanage are as gorgeous as ever and the students are a pleasure to be around. The feeling you get when you walk up the stairs to the orphanage to be greeted by kids rushing toward you to say Hi and shake hands and give you a hug is indescribable.

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Anish absorbs every word spoken at Assembly while Anju chats

Little Anish just wants to be lifted up and carried, his big brother Manish insists on shoulder rides, Anju giggles and wants to dance. We’re even getting Arti and Ramita coming out to say hi and wave shyly. Arti and Ramita are two gorgeous girls who’ve been quite withdrawn and appear to be impacted by the parentless/orphan state more so than the others. For a good month to 6 weeks it was hard to get more than a smile from them but now, Ramita beams when I see her and Arti is quietly correcting my deliberately mispronounced efforts at saying her same. I’m sure it’s Ardy, isn’t it?? ☺

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Taaz, Ramita and Arti. With a full head of hair, Arti is even prettier.

Perkash searches me out when he comes across to the school or is content to sit beside me when the others are clambering all over me. Ritesh grins when I look at him and return his wave.

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Perkash on my left, indifferent to Manish’s antics. Middle Aakash at the back, Ritesh and Mumtaj on right. Manish monopolises the lap!

Critical to my personal development (sanity) are the occasional weekends away. A weekend in Mumbai to see some Board members, lunch with the family of a good friend of mine and 2 nights in a King size, soft bed!!

A weekend in Jodhpur over Holi has proven to be the highlight. If Holi were held in Australia, it’d be so regulated and controlled it’d be reduced to a small bonfire in a drum with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on standby and a glass case showing the powder you could shower over each other, if only the Dept. of Health had approved it.

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Just your average Rajasthan Palace.

The noise, the excitement, the laughter, it was amazing! The fires in the streets made from cow dung and watching the care taken to build these fires was wonderful. The fires are built up to a fine peak with a tall branch at their core and then surrounded by stones. Colours are then sprinkled into patterns on the street and across the dung.

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After an afternoon in the dust and petals of Jodhpur.

Before lighting, the fires are blessed and due homage paid to the relevant gods and then once the fire is lit, all hell breaks lose. Coloured powder is thrown or sprinkled or pasted onto peoples faces and heads, people laugh, they dance, the drums beat and the fire rages. The central branch is extracted to represent the power of good over evil and (we were told) it is then good luck to walk around the fire 7 times. As many locals were also doing the same thing, we went along with it.

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This was all on the Sunday night; Monday brought the water bombs, the pistols, the complete mayhem. As I was flying I didn’t really fancy boarding a flight soaked in colours but I needn’t have worried when I checked out a few of my fellow travellers. I can see why Air India has multi-coloured seat cushions!! What an amazing experience. The lack of photos of the nights events is only due to my leaving my camera behind because I didn’t want it wrecked which proved to be a little too cautionary. Next year…..

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A quiet Sunday afternoon in Jodhpur. The noise was deafening, it took a cold Kingfisher to drown it out,

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One step at a time…

Woo hoo!!! A real teacher walks in our midst. Today (23 Feb) we had the beautiful Celia arrive from the US, a genuine, qualified and very experienced Maths teacher. I could not have been happier when I saw her walk through the door (no disrespect to any of you other guys who’ve been here/are here!). She shadowed Victoria and I for the first couple of periods to meet the kids and then from the next day she was off and running.

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Sachin and Sonu ponder what life would be like if only Celia Ma’am could teach them Maths for ever!! While Ritik in the back just wants to learn more English.

We’ve also been joined by Nick, a nice Kiwi guy. Again, he just hit his stride by day 2 and is taking on classes without batting an eye!! With Nick coming into the house there are now 3 guys who sing constantly so going from a house of one in Melbourne to sharing a house with 6 others is an interesting exercise. Luckily their singing abilities are pretty good so evenings around the volunteer apartment are far from dull!

There’s plenty of work for Nick, Celia and the rest of us because you see, and I may already have mentioned this but we have empty periods. The two teachers who’ve left, Geetesh and Rani, have already taught everything they need to to the students so there is no need for classes. This is on top of already finding out that periods 5 and 6 each day are surplus because the “curriculum” is completely covered by the end of Period 4. Thus Syd and Marcus take these classes and do top up English.

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A couple of Saturday’s back Aakash and Kanhaiya were hanging around the house and it struck me around 9:30, why aren’t these kids in school? It turned out that Mary had decided because there were no Westerners there to teach (Volunteers don’t work weekends) and the children had learned everything, she’d just close the school for the day. Oooook, then. As you do.

The time is coming, dear reader, for a meeting with Jeremiah and Mary. And at that meeting we’ll be covering off the new syllabus for next year (starting in April), the number of and allocation of teachers, the curriculum, the timetable, the need for management to be fully conversant in said timetable and syllabus, which child is going to be in which class, etc etc. And why it’s probably not the best to just to decide on a whim to close the school “because there are no Westerners there”. It’s not going to be OK to just shrug and say “I don’t know” when asked what is being taught and by whom, to whom. And we hopefully can stop having 8 year olds in Kindergarten classes and 12 year olds in Year 6 when the former is really bright and the latter is, well, shall we say challenged. In other words, what needs to be done to manage a school. And I’m not even a teacher/principle or anything remotely like it but it seems to just be common sense.

Aside from my Years 6-8 kids and their 2 periods of English each morning plus the private tuition for Aakash and Parvez, I’ve stepped back from teaching to focus on helping Jeremiah. We went through the finances a few weeks back and reached a fairly bleak conclusion. Money out sometimes exceeds money in.

This man (Jeremiah) is doing some beautiful work, has started and continues to somehow manage wonderful initiatives to help the poor in this slum. But without management experience and any firm plan, things have gone a little off the rails, which is where I come in to try and help get it back in order.

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The new building takes shape.

We’re drafting a business plan (this is a first, both for me and for Miracle Charitable) that can be used for our fundraising in coming years. It maps out what we want to do in the immediate term (finish the orphanage) but also the long term which is build a permanent school, make the operations self sustaining and allow for growth. Things like a vege garden at the orphanage to grow food for the kids but also food that can then be on-sold for income. Tuition for the Villagers; Literacy, language, computers, sewing, maybe some English. A shop to sell produce and wares the kids or Villagers may produce.

Thanks to a couple of extraordinary contacts in the US who’re in turn supporting me and some quite inspired and inspiring volunteers who’re doing what they can to raise funds, we’ll get there.

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Francie, Ramita, Arti and Prachi check out their new dogs

I got a call from Jeremiah last week, “Peter, where are you?? Quick, we need to go meet the person at the Government”. Unsure of whether it was Sonia Gandhi or perhaps just a lowly official, I did my hair, put on a clean shirt and brushed my teeth.

“The person” was one of the heads of Child Development in the area and she and her cohorts had paid a surprise visit to the orphanage the night before to see first hand what our situation was. Luckily they found kids sleeping on the floors (Why? They have beds. I still haven’t got a straight answer) and the kids backed up all that Jeremiah had been telling them about our needs.

As a result I drew up a proposal with Jeremiah’s input to send in and apply for full funding for the construction of the Orphanage. We’re still waiting to hear back but fingers crossed; if it comes through I’ll be high 5’ing everyone in sight!!!

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The “hit me” MS Beauty Saloon just down the road from home.

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A blurred shot of security at one of the Metro stations in the city. Blurred because photography is strictly banned and it was shot from the hip whilst pretending to adjust my iPod. Rebel.

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What a country.

This country is totally confounding. It’s uncivilised in ways we could never contemplate in the West but then you come across such beauty or generosity of spirit that it makes the West a very cold and impersonal place in comparison. Spitting, pissing, shitting in the streets or just off to the side; puddles that we have to step over or pass by which are so toxic you know you’d lose a foot if you ever stepped in there; traffic and horns that jar the nerves. The guys in the queue at the Metro who just simply push in in front of you because, well, because they can. Boarding and Deboarding (sic) the Metro is an extraordinary display of shear push, shove, smash and bash it’s almost exhilarating to survive it.

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Somehow, what looks to be dangerous and dodgy building methods just seem to work. Tried and tested over many years, I guess.

But then the laughter of the kids and the greetings and hugs from them when they see you walk in the door or climb the steps to the orphanage makes up for all that. Anish just wanting a cuddle and then to ride on my shoulders and play trains. Time with Aakash and Parvez, seeing their eyes light up when they learn something new on how to use the computer or have Googled a new fact.

At school we get shy smiles from Seema and Chadna in class when you tell them how good they are because they’ve “got” what you’ve just taught (prepositions excepted) or they’ve done their homework because they wanted to, not because they had to. And laughs from those same girls and their classmates when I give a quick imitation of their little dance at assembly that morning or when I make a face, a funny sound or put on some sort of voice to change the tone of the class.

There is the man who sees us trying to cross a flooded street and who pulls up beside us to then take us up to the mall so we don’t get wet. And how about having Pinky (housekeeper and cook) make your kali chai just how you like it. These are the priceless moments.

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The tightest security imaginable at the Red Fort. Not.

Few people can read a clock/watch; time is an irrelevance or at most an inconvenience, the food at home can be monotous and stodgy and full of carbs and weighted heavily in favour of the humble potato for up to 3 meals a day (up from the usual 1-2 potatoes eaten across a whole week, it’s a struggle). Although, given that Faridabad is not known as the culinary capital of the country, up in Delhi there is plenty of variety. The wine is scarce, reliable power even scarcer. The internet is too slow to contemplate even purchasing 1 song from iTunes let along an entire album or, god forbid a recent release movie. I can’t access the web in my bedroom at the back of the house but it’s a small price to pay for some privacy and non-Indian time. Skype sort of works, it takes roughly an hour to update any Apps on my phone (forget about buying any new ones, my App for the Delhi Metro won’t be downloaded until I’m back in Melbourne) and I haven’t been able to back anything up in weeks other than making sure my photos are backed up to a USB.

To try and talk to someone on the phone is almost an impossible nightmare. They may be on their bike in the middle of traffic when they call you or their English so bad that the words are indecipherable so please, just text me and we’ll communicate like that. At least for the foreseeable future until I can get to actually study this language and learn more than 3 sentences. In a few years time I’m sure I’ll be happy to chat on the phone with you.

The dust, the mud when it rains. The smells, the rubbish, the dogs fighting at night. The traffic and the horns, the music at a bass crumblingly loud volume, the decaying infrastructure. Potholled roads in the city the equal of any dirt track we used to bounce over on my Dad’s farm. The smooth patch of a freeway, the beauty of a rich sari, the cleanliness of the Metro and the western shops around Connaught Place, the pleasure of coming across a spot in the city where suddenly you realise the horns are just a distant beep.

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The only sound in the laneway was the laughter of children playing and this guy calling out his produce.
All these things add up to life in Greater Delhi and right now, rain or no, mud or dust, too many potatoes and horrendous noise, I wouldn’t swap it for anywhere. Except maybe Melbourne. Melbourne would be nice. Or Christchurch; I’d swap it for Christchurch. But I know once I’d reconnected with everyone and eaten a few good western meals and supped some nice Sav Blanc or Pinot Noir, I’d be wondering what was happening back here and how the kids were. And the itch would be back again.

C’est la vie, the life of the peripatetic man.

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