Hi Everyone! Sorry it's been ages again since I've posted anything, and for the lack of photos. I've been saving up lots to tell you about (as you can see below!) but I'm afraid there is really no hope of me posting anymore pics until I manage to find a computer that works faster than, well faster than a very slow computer! As soon as I can I'll pop them up but for the meantime I promise I am still in India and still alive…..For the last month I have been staying with an organisation called NBJK just outside of a town called Hazaribag in the state of Jharkhand. Jharkhand has only actually existed for about 7 years, originally it was part of Bihar but the two states were separated in a controversial vote by Indian parliament in 2000. Most people don't think to visit this part of India, probably because it is known as one of the poorest areas of the country and also because it has a reputation for being a relatively unstable and lawless. Admittedly, when I first arrived, the contrast to the lush hills of Uttarakand was quite stark. The whole feel of Jharkhand was much more hostile than anywhere else I had visited. Crumbling buildings, dusty fields and cattle everywhere were just a few of the sights that suggested that life here was a little bit more of a struggle. Buddha predicted that Bihar would suffer from continual 'feud, fire and flood' and he wasn't too far off the mark. Just this year the northern states of Bihar suffered, once again, from severe flooding - you may remember the scenes shown on the news. On top of this government corruption is rife and many areas of both Jharkhand and Bihar are Naxalite strongholds. Naxalites despite sounding like a species from star trek are in fact groups of communist 'terrorists' that lead an often violent struggle against landlords and those in power on behalf of landless labourers and tribal people. Due to the popularity of these small communist guerilla groups banditary and acts of violence are common in many areas of both states. It is this activity that makes Jharkhand and Bihar amongst the most hostile states to visit as a tourist. On a few field trips I made with NBJK I was told we had to leave the area before dark because of the threat of Naxalite activity and the papers were constantly littered with stories of violence and bombings.On top of all this as soon as I arrived I found the attitude to women was somewhat behind the times. Men clearly rule the roost in this part of India and I found on several occasions that I had a hidden feminist streak in me that had a few words to say about the way women were treated (One of my smaller gripes were shared auto-rickshaw rides, if men and women were travelling together women were not allowed to sit in the front, Grrrr, me and my western principles of gender equality were not impressed!)So on the surface Bihar and Jharkhand are the poorest, least literate, most lawless and probably most backward states in India but if you can look beyond these things they also have a lot to offer and are rich in both culture and history . Bihar in particular is intertwined with the life of Buddha in many ways; Buddha spent most of his life there and reached his state of enlightenment at Bodh Gaya.Jharkhand and Bihar have definitely been the most challenging places I've visited so far but in a way also the most fulfilling. I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to visit and experience some amazing places and people….and hopefully get a few steps further on my path to enlightenment too…(sorry couldn't resist the naff line!)
Hazaribag is a bustling town in central Jharkhand just off the road between Bodh Gaya and Jharkhand's capital Ranchi. If I was to choose one word to sum it up I would probably choose dirty, but it would be unfair not to describe it a little further. There is nothing really to see in Hazaribag as such but I was stuck out in an office in a small village an hour's walk away from town and I soon found that Hazaribag held a whole number of delights; broadband internet, 4 cinemas, a lake and coffee, to name just a few. I also decided over the weeks that Hazaribag's heady mix of cycles, people, rickshaws, cars and cows, that crowd all of the streets, were actually quite endearing. So my little trips into town via a 5rs auto-rickshaw rides soon became a highlight.Whilst I remember I must tell you about auto-rickshaws, or small motorised rickshaws. For those of you that haven't been to India they resemble tiny black, green and yellow hooded milk floats and carry people to and from everywhere! They are the staple form of transport in most Indian towns and in Hazaribag they do a roaring trade taking people to and from Hazaribag from the surrounding villages and towns. There are well known spots where the autos wait, fill up with people and then drive in to town. I had to walk for about 10 minutes to reach the nearest 'spot' to the NBJK office. The drivers don't go until their auto is full or at least has a few people in, then they will usually squeeze a few more people in along the way.It is amazing how many people can fit in to one auto - I've had people practically sitting on my lap before to get a lift home. Indian people don't seem to go in for the whole personal space thing so you just have to get into the spirit and cuddle up a bit! My auto experience has lead me to ponder whether there is a world record, a bit like how many people can you get in a mini but how many people can you get in a rickshaw....I bet you could get more in an auto-rickshaw than a mini....mmmm....one to think about.So as I said I was staying a little way out of Hazaribag in a village called Amrit Nagar which is where the NBJK headquarters are. The offices are quite a big and in fairly new building that has guest rooms and it's own canteen that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. So I actually had no reason to leave to go to Hazaribag, apart from my own sanity! I'm afraid I'm making the place sound like a prison, it really wasn't, it was just a little isolated. I was lucky in that for most of my stay I had the company of two other volunteers, a young dutch girl called Anke who was here as a break from her studies in Religion and Ute a lady here doing a research project on mental health for VSO (Ute also lives in Tufnell Park so I got to reminisce lots about London!). They really made my whole stay so much more enjoyable.
Work for NBJK
The main purpose of my visit here was of course to visit some of the NBJK projects that AVI fund. NBJK work in a variety of areas - women's empowerment, micro finance, education and health and sanitation - but most of the work I was doing focused on education. My main task was to get a collection of case studies together of girls that are being sponsored, through an organisation called Stri Shakti, to continue their education. I know this probably all sounds a bit confusing, to explain a bit of the background to the situation the villagers in this area of Jharkhand often struggle to make a living and have a very low economic status. It is an agriculturally dominated area so workers are at the whim of the weather and only have guaranteed work in the harvesting and sewing seasons. Many families grow just enough food for their own consumption and don't have enough land or big enough yields to also be able to sell their produce so incomes are reliant on finding extra piece work, usually as a labourer in the fields or construction industry. The daily wage for an agricultural labourer is very low, 70-80rs a day for men and 50-60 rs per day for women (80rs is roughly one pound) this is enough for daily items only as most have big families to feed. With this in mind it is not surprising that education is not a priority and that many parents are not willing to pay anything towards their children's education, they simply can't afford it.So education standards are poor and many parents themselves are illiterate.There are government schools in the area that children can attend for free but the teaching is of a very low standard (in fact at some schools the teachers rarely turn up at all!) and girls don't often continue their education beyond 6th class (around the age of 11 or 12). Many parents believe that this is enough schooling for their daughters. If they study further it means that the families will have to find a larger dowry for their daughter and a groom that has studied to a higher level (the dowry system is still rife in this area of India). Of course these attitudes only perpetuate the poor economic status of these communities but it is a sad fact that traditionally, in India, girl children are seen as a burden to a family. Parents are reluctant to spend any money on their daughters' welfare at all let alone on her education, in their eyes this will just make it harder and more expensive for her to marry in the long run.The Stri Shakti project AVI is funding is working at a village level to get more girls into good schools to finish their 10th class exams (aged around 15-16). Education is central to overcoming poverty and gender inequality in society and this project is enabling girls from the most marginalized communities of the Hazaribag district to get good schooling and achieve a higher level of literacy. This in turn should instill more confidence among the girls and start to break down the current gender divides within the education system. I have visited lots of schools over the last month and got together a bank of case studies. I found talking to some of the girls was really interesting but also in many ways quite frustrating. Many had very similar routines and lifestyles, they would get up early, perhaps 4 or 5am in the morning, help their mother with the household chores such as cooking and cleaning and then do some study before attending school. They would go to school, study, come home, do more household chores, do their homework and then go to bed. Very few of them said they had hobbies of any kind but they were all really enthusiastic about their studies which seemed to take up most of their spare time. The frustrating thing I found was asking the girls about what they wanted to do after school. Generally the girls didn't know at all or daren't say as it depended on their parents. I felt like it was such a shame that I was talking to all these brilliant, intelligent young women full of potential and yet none of them could even imagine an independent life for themselves. Some had ideas of becoming nurses or teachers but most couldn't even seem to fantasise about what they might like to do in an ideal world. I suppose they just don't think about these things because it is not a reality to them, in all likelihood they will leave school help at home and then fall into marriage and have families of their own. I know breaking down the social pattern of generations doesn't happen over-night but I guess I hoped the girls would have a little bit more ambition. What it did make me think is that the girls that did show the inclination to go on and do other things after school (there were a handful) should really be nurtured to go onto higher education or into a profession. The more girls that do go those few steps further towards independence will really set an example for others and hopefully slowly but surely the pattern will begin to change and more girls will have the confidence to take their lives into their own hands. I know I am just skimming the surface here and there are other factors at work; the family unit, economics, traditions of gender status, caste status.....Indian society really does work in a very different mentality from that in the west, but whichever way you look at it, it still doesn't justify the gender inequalities that exist.
Motorbikes and Bollywood!
I have been fairly serious about Jharkhand so far so thought it would be a good idea to point out some of the fun and quirky details of my time there....First of all - the motorbike rides! Bikes and motorbikes are the staple form of transport around Jharkhand, and indeed India. One of the first sights I saw after coming off the plane in Delhi was a guy riding a motorbike with his wife and baby sitting on the back. I was amazed firstly that the wife was just holding this tiny baby in her arms on the back of a bike but also because they were wearing no helmets or anything, if they fell off or had an accident it wouldn't have been pretty! Gradually I got used to seeing this scene eveywhere - all men seem to ride motorbikes, women sit side-saddle on the back and none of them wear protection; it's the Indian way. It was in Jharkhand that I got my first real taste of the Indian way. With no jeep to take us to a school my guide, Prakesh, and I had to go on his motorbike. I didn't admit I was s*** scared, hopped on the back (side saddle of course) and then clung on to the hand bar at the back for dear life! Initially I kept thinking of the fact I wasn't wearing a helmet and had visions of my mum freaking out. Once I'd relaxed I realised it was nice having the sun on your face and wind in your hair and that it was actually really fun! I am now a motorbike pro, it is definitely my favourite form of Indian transport so far and I quite want one of my own! Will just have to learn to drive first ;-)My other 'first' was a cinema trip in Hazaribag to see a Bollywood film. It had to be done! On Anke's recommendation we went to see 'Om Shanti Om' the latest Bollywood blockbuster that I believe also had a premiere in London recently? I had never seen a Bollywood flick before but it was just what I expected....the cheesiest film I had ever seen! The most far-fetched storyline imaginable, kitcsh costumes, songs and dances at every opportune moment and atrocious over-acting all come together to make a film that is so bad, it is brilliant! I loved it and will be bringing back the DVD, if only for comedy value :-) Going to the cinema was also quite an experience! First of all the ticket only cost 20rs (about 25p) which is officially my best bargain yet in India! How do London cinemas get away with charging £10?? Like many things (most leisure activities) the cinema is also a bit of a man's pass-time, so along with me and Anke (two blonde pasty white european girls) the cinema was full of young boys and men. Throughout the film the young men would cheer at any appropriate (?) moment; when a hot girl came on screen, when the hero and heroine kissed....it was like cinema crossed with pantomime and really quite funny. Anke and I refrained from joining in but did laugh out loud at a few inappropriate moments - oops! After my Bollywood experience I have come to the conclusion that if you are ever feeling down a Bollywood film will, without doubt, cheer you up. So if you are currently feeling the effects of SAD give it a go!
Trip to Bihar
For one week Anke and I were taken 'into the field' on a visit to Bihar. The main aim was for us to see a village area north of Patna (the capital of Bihar) called Vaishali that had been been effected by the floods earlier this year. AVI had collected flood relief funds that had been utilised in various ways in affected areas. I was keen to see the state of things four months on. We may not be seeing the pictures on the news any longer but I had heard that the relief work in Bihar was far from over.Our trip into Bihar also gave us the rare opportunity to do some sightseeing and on the way to Patna we got to see Bodh Gaya, Nalanda and Rajgir - a few of Bihar's so called 'places of interest'. Our first port of call was an area called Chapouran on the way to Bodh Gaya. This was a base from which to visit a couple of NBJK funded schools and also an NBJK eye hospital that provides free and subsidised treatment to those who can't afford it. We stayed over night in an ashram linked to the school next door to the eye hospital. My lasting memory of the place is the toilet, or more specifically the two cockroaches that inhabited the toilet. In order to pee you had to first flush the not-so-little blighters down with water only to have them re-appear the next time you needed to go. I don't know why (I think it may have something to do with a horror film I watched once) but I really don't like cockroaches and I really had to conquer my fear to get through two nights sharing a bathroom with them!Next port of call was Bodh Gaya, ie: the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the world. Bodh Gaya is where Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and reached enlightenment. The sight where the tree was still exists and a tree from the sapling of the original tree sits in its place. Not much exists of the Bodh Gaya of Buddha's time but the place does retain some essence of spirituality, this despite the hoards of tourists that now flock here to find their own enlightenment. The main sight to see is the famous Mahabodhi Temple, where the Boddhi tree also sits. The temple was originally constructed in the 6th c AD but has been through various turbulances since then and the stone pyramid temple that now sits in it's place was completed in 1882. It's not exactly ancient but it is still beautifully regal in it's own way and the whole temple complex with it's gardens, lake and crowds of Buddhist monks still feels quite unique. The rest of Bodh Gaya is filled with more temples; Chinese temple, Tibetan temple, Burmese temple, Bhutanese temple, Nepali temple, the list goes on....You can visit all of these if you wish but most of them are fairly new and unremarkable, I found once you had seen one they all looked the same. We stuck to visiting a couple of temples and then wondered round soaking up the atmosphere and a few lassi's! My Bodh Gaya highlight was probably finding my very own Buddha to bring back. Obviously BG is full of shops and stalls selling Buddhas, you think it would be easy to find one you like but once you start looking you become fussy. It has to have the right expression, the right hand gesture, the right metal....apparently one guy wrote a book about his quest to find his perfect Buddha, took him something ridiculous like ten years once he started looking! Luckily I found mine within the day so I can have my own corner of Buddhist peace and happiness when I return :-)After Bodh Gaya we headed to Patna via Rajgir and Nalanda. Rajgir is another ancient town and Buddhist pilgrimage site set in the midst of five rocky hills. Up one of these rocky hills is a Buddhist peace temple opened by the Dalai Lama in the 60's. It is a very impressive white temple with impressive views out across the valleys below but the best bit is getting up there. A very rickety chairlift, that is barely still functioning, takes you up to the temple. Individual metal chair booths scoop you up and carry you up and down the hill. On our way up the lift stopped at least a couple of times as the generator conked out - always reassuring! I also had a hilarious moment when an old Indian guy that was on his way up the hill shouted out to me "welcome to India baby!" with a smile and a wave. I think he'd been watching too many Bollywood movies, but it did make me chuckle!Next stop on the way to Patna was Nalanda, apparently one of the ancient worlds greatest university's and another Buddhist centre. The university is now just a collection of ruins that you walk around but pretty impressive and very peaceful none the less. I found it quite amazing that in the 5th century AD Nalanda was a great educational centre leading the way in astronomy, medicine and philosophy....now Nalanda is a collection of ruins and the education system in India seems to be a haphazard mess. After a long day travelling the NBJK patna office wasn't the most welcoming place to arrive. Tucked away in a back street on the first floor of an apartment block it was basically a dingy corridor with an office (full of birds that had pooed everywhere) at one end, a kitchen at the other and a guest room in between - that was to be Anke and I's room. Thankfully when you're knackered you'll sleep anywhere and we soon forgot about the stained sheets and night-time soundtrack coming from the nearby flats, train station and hotel with back to back wedding parties. The next day we visited Vaishali.one of the areas effected by the floods earlier this year. It was a three hour drive northfrom Patna but worth the travelling to see the situation with our own eyes. Fields were still waterlogged and villagers were still suffering in many ways months after the floods had hit. These people were poor and struggled to survive anyway, the floods destroyed the little land they had to depend on for their livelihood. Villagers have had to find other sources of income since August and many have had to migrate to bigger towns just to find work. Those that are left are suffering in other ways. We were taken to see a health camp (funded with some of the AVI money sent over) that had come to the village to offer post flood medications like vitamin and rehydration sachets. The water supply was still contaminated so many of the villagers were suffering from diarrhoea and sickness. This area wasn't one of the worst affected but it seemed bad enough to me. The people were desperately trying to get some semblance of normality back into their lives but it was clearly a constant battle. It's hard to know what to do after seeing scenes so desperate they make you feel physically sick. I felt sadness, pity, guilt and so many other emotions but I didn't really know what to do with the experience afterwards - I felt helpless. In hindsight I think it's important we pressurise governments to have more disaster planning and prevention schemes in place, especially in places such as Bihar that suffer from flooding every year. Seeing Vaishali also emphasised to me how important the work organisations such as NBJK and AVI are doing to support and strengthen village communities at a grass root level. The stronger (more educated, more economically flexible, more motivated) villages are the better they will be able to cope with inevitable problems and set backs that they face. On the drive back to Patna we decided to stop at Sonepur. According to Hindu legend this is the place where Vishnu ended the battle between the Lords of the Forest - the elephants - and the Lords of the Water - the crocodiles. To celebrate this Sonepur has a 3-week Mela (carnival/festival) every year and we were in the right place at the right time to catch it. Part of the Mela is Asia's largest 'cattle' fair and we were told that not only cows exchanged hands but everything from camels to elephants!! I was hoping to get in on the bidding so I could bring back an elephant as well as a Buddha but unfortunately we'd missed all the fun and the fair was over :-( We did get to walk round the Mela though, a bit like a funfair with a few rides and hundreds of stalls selling everything from bangles to birds.Our last day in Bihar was reserved for seeing the sites of Patna but unfortuntely Anke and I were sick in the night and had to stay in bed in the grotty office all day. We think it was some dodgy water in Vaishali that planted the bug. I felt atrocious for about 48 hours but after it was out of my system (I'll spare you the details!) I recovered quite quickly. At one point, fed up of the sight of the guest room's mouldy ceiling, I tried to go for a walk but I didn't get very far. India is not the most sympathetic place when you are feeling sick; car horns, cows, cow s***, food stalls, people staring....I got about 200 metres before I had to turn back again! Just whilst I'm feeling sorry for myself I should mention that whilst I was suffering in my dingy cell of a room a mosquito decided to attack my face. So as well as feeling sick I looked like I had chicken pox. Needless to say I was not a happy bunny for a few days.Anyway after recovering we managed to see a few sights of Patna before returning back to Hazaribag. It's amazing how your standards change in a few days, after coming back the rooms and bathroom and everything seemed like relative luxury to the grottiness of Patna. Loo-inhabiting cockroaches, Buddhist serenity, rickety chair-lifts, university ruins, flood devastation, Mela mayhem and puking in Patna....my trip to Bihar is not one I will forget in a hurry!
I have to tell you about one more thing I saw in Patna. I had read about hijras, or eunuchs, recently in William Dalrymple's account of Delhi. Once a common part of ancient life in most places they have now died out but in India there are still many of them (apparently about ¾ million) living in the poorer parts of big cities. They live secretive lives and are fiercely protective of their privacy so not much is known about them but they do make frequent public appearences. Dressed as women, made up to the nines the hijras turn up uninvited to birth celebrations and weddings to dance, sing and make bawdy jokes. From the poor they ask for money for the good luck their blessings are meant to bring and from the richer families they ask for larger sums of money by threatening to strip naked unless they are paid to leave! Can you imagine a eunuch turning up to your wedding and threatening to strip!? Another one of India's crazy truths! Dalrymple describes the hijra's as volatile, vulgar and sometimes violent. Not many tourists get the chance to see the hijras but I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them in action in Patna. Across the balcony from the office was another balcony belonging to a block of flats. One morning we heard a clatter of drums and some high pitched wailing, a group of hijras were descending on the family opposite. The family didn't look happy but let them in anyway to perform. It was such a bizarre sight to see and successfully managed to take my mind off my face full of mosquito bites for half and hour!So my time in Jharkhand is now nearly over, I leave in two days and head to Kolkata 'City of Joy' for Christmas and New Year. My Dad will be meeting me so I'll have some family company and hopefully a little break from the cold water showers! Have a great Christmas and New Year everyone, thinking of you all!