Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

Category Archives: India 2013


I had a lot of great times in the six weeks I spent in India and Nepal and there are still a couple of blogs I want to write about places that I went, but this one is a selection of some of the pictures I have of some of the people I met on my travels. Enough said.

A workman who passed me on my morning walk to the office.

A workman who passed me on my morning walk to the office.

A stall-holder in Pedong market

A stall-holder in Pedong market

A moment of relaxationfror mother and child - otherwise beggars in the main square at Bhaktapur.

Mother and child in the main square at Bhaktapur.  A little while earlier, they had been begging on the steet corner.

A monk in debate at the monastery in Lava.

Making a point – the daily debate at the monastery in Lava.

Preparing a rice paddy in Chitwan

Preparing a rice paddy in Chitwan

Getting up close to the action at a car workshop in Kalimpong

A car workshop in Kalimpong

A stall-holder in Kalimpong who regulalry supplied me with packets of cookies and bottles of water and pepsi.

My regular supplier of snacks and soft-drinks – a roadside shopkeeper in Kalimpong

Wash day in Kathmandu

Wash day in Kathmandu – just three more buckets out of shot.


Pictures of dedication

My visit to the Nepalese city of Bhaktapur coincided with the country’s New Year celebrations (it is now 2070 in their calendar) and the nine day festival of Bisket Jatra. As a Northern European, used to private and quiet religious celebrations conducted oncwe a week, this was a bit of an eye-opener, on all three fronts.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

We arrived in the city on New Years’ Eve (13 April’ this year) which is also day 4 of the Bisket Jatra celebrations. Initially, it seemed like nothing more than the usual might be going on – we strolled around, took a couple of pictures, exchanged pleasantries with the flute peddlers and generally relaxed. But then the crowds started growing and moving and we with them. I have no pictures of that evening, so I shall just have to do my best with words.

Bisket Jatra is a nine-day celebration around a romantic story involving a couple of gods, a king’s cursed princess, several dead suitors and a hero. Intertwined with this story is one another, mystery tale, of the principle God and Goddess of the city being the wrathful aspects of Shiva (the destroyer) and his consort. Okay, so far? During the festival, the Gods are placed in great big wooden chariots that are dragged through the streets by groups of young men, who win the privilege in a giant tug of war that is held at the start of the festival. Moving these things on the cobbled streets is no easy task, either to do or control. Our hotel manager told us that the day before we arrived, two people were crushed to death under the wheels of Bhairab on his way to the upper square. He seemed quite excited about it.

The erect "pole" - the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could bite the hero, before he could rescue the princess. Um.

The erect “pole” – the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could prevent him rescuing the princess. Um.

That evening, we went to see the fourth day of ceremonies in the lower square. Here, literally hundreds of young men, surrounded by a crowd of thousands, worked to erect a 20m (60′) tree trunk on a plinth in the main square. I am afraid my picture from the morning after gives only a slight impression of the size, but imagine, if you can – around 200 men, dragging on eight ropes that are tied to the cross-piece. Their efforts are timed to the beat of a separate tree trunk being lifted and then dropped on the plinth (it takes three men to do just that) amplified by the shouts of the crowd. “Urah! Urah! Urah!” X frames built from the branches of the same tree (and held together by hand-made rope) are pushed into place to provide support, between bouts of effort. But with no guide ropes the pole frequently swings sideways, threatening the mass of onlookers who run away, screaming and laughing, returning in a few minutes when the panic has passed. True; there are armed police attempting some crowd control but any health and safety officers have quietly crawled away to be sick in a corner.

All I can say is that the excitement generated by this event made it clear that our English Maypoles and Morris Dancers have a thing or two to learn about Spring fertility rites! Especially, given that none of these things seemed to be organised in any systematic way. This is a festival of and by the people – while Hindus have their priestly caste, the Brahmins, their Sadhus and temple attendants, the life of their religion is carried in the blood and the dedication of the people. As demonstrated by these other scenes from the day after.

The throng aroun the base of the pillar, doing puja.

The throng around the base of the pillar, doing puja.

A plate of oferings to the gods.

A plate of offerings to the gods.

Morning offerings - take on New Years' Day, but something you might see at any time.

Morning offerings – take on New Years’ Day, but something you might see at any time.

Boys doing their thing - what else.

Boys, meantime, do what they do.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

And if you need a nap, well, take it - and where better, but in the lap of the God.

And if you need a nap, well, take it – and where better, but in the lap of the God.

In closing, this one 24 hours probably taught me more about the true nature of India (and Nepal) than I could ever have expected. What unites these places is not their national boundaries or their politics, or even the religion. There are two main features I keep returning to. There is this irrepressible quality of eagerness and an appetite for living that is quite capable of sweeping all and everything before it; it runs throughout their society – vibrant, wilful, open; unmoderated and therefore dangerous, but exciting and captivating. But there is also this deeper seam of quiet, insistent and persistent dedication which expresses itself in the daily rites of puja that I witnessed everywhere I went – a core of value that seems to speak of something truly ancient and universal in humanity.

Mission update 3; hand-over time

Now back home, and after a few of days to get over the jet-lag, I sent off my hand-over report to my English MondoFoundation coordinator. I am pleased to say that it is all looking pretty good. Six weeks was always going to be too short a time to see any material effects (did you know that it takes at least three months to grow a carrot?) but work has properly begun on the first site and the first departures from plan have been 2/3 positive and only 1/3 unnerving…[1]. Next week, I will meet with my coordinator and successor to discuss the practical ramifications of all this, and that will be that, at least for now.

Writing the report has helped me to summarise the business side of the experience, but I am struggling to know what to say about the wider trip. The experience has certainly affected me more deeply than I had imagined, let alone articulate. Staying with Jiwan and his family and working withh them and the schools, this was less of a visit and more of a complete immersion in a very different culture and way of living. At the very least, I do find that I am able to look at my western cultural surroundings with both more value and less attachment.

It has also been one of the most uplifting and satisfying experiences of my recent years; everything about it was new for me – working with schools, working with agriculture, working abroad. And doing it in the vibrant, emergent chaos of northern India; such a contrast to the apparent quietude of my rural English village.  So, there is a lot that I shall miss – not least because I wasn’t there for the first poly-houses go up and won’t see the first crops go into the ground. I’ll get reports of course, not just from Jiwan, the project manager, but from the next Mondo ambassador who will be starting his visit in mid-May. I guess I shall just have to see whether I can get out there again.

And if you want to know more about what I was doing and who with, here are some links –

A video interview in two parts, with Mondo founder Anthony Lunch, about the work of the foundation.


And links to the MondoChallenge website and its sister volunteer organisation, Vanilla – Generation.



I’ll be publishing some other posts from Kalimpong and Nepal in due course, but in the meantime, here are some more pictures of the project, the schools and the team

One of the parents

One of the parents

Meeting Mala, the MCK agricultural advisor

Meeting Mala, the MCK agricultural advisor

Prayers at Pioneer school

Prayers at Pioneer school

The author at lessons...

Me at lessons…

Jiwan looking more relaxed than I'd seen him all visit.

Jiwan looking more relaxed than I’d seen him all visit.

Me (bottom left) being grilled by the three particpating headmasters.

Me (bottom left) being grilled by the three particpating headmasters.

And breaking news………

The first poly-house under construction!

The first poly-house under construction!

[1] In business as in war and life, the whole point of a plan is to help you marshal your resources and get prepared. Generally speaking, if  having got going, you think everything is going completely according to plan, you either weren’t being ambitious enough, or you are about to suffer a rude shock!

A village break

While this project has taken up most of my time, I have managed to get away for the odd break. Last weekend, Jiwan took me on a short village walk – these are usually done over a couple of days; a great opportunity to combine a bit of hill walking with first hand experience of local village life. I had a bit of an off day with the camera, so the outdoor pictures weren’t worth putting you in, but here are some of Sillery, itself, and the family we stayed with.

The evening sun as we approached. Somewhere to the left of the sun is Kanchenjonga

The evening sun as we approached the village – altitude about 2,000m.

Our cabin - Jiwan and I shared the room to the left.

Our cabin – Jiwan and I shared the room to the left.

The above photo was taken the morning after. Despite having a complete set of electricity lines which have been in place for over a year, the village has no electricity, except what comes from diesel generators. This family shares a generator with ten other households. For economy it is run for just 3 hours a day – 6.30 to 9.30pm. Hence the scene below –

Jiwan, to the left, after lighting the parrafin lamp.

A paraffin lamp for light, but most important – tea!

Our hostess, by the wood fuelled hearth.

Our hostess, by the wood fuelled hearth, preparing dinner

The same scene without the flash.

The same scene without the flash.

In this high country, fuel is cut direct from the forests for both heating and cooking, and this range, built from concrete is fed from the front by hand. Burnt fingers appear to be an occupational hazard.

One of the older houses.

One of the older houses.

Although basic, dwellings are built to a very practical pattern, usually comprising one building each for the sleeping quarters, eating/living room, and kitchen. A separate outhouse, usually at least ten feet away,will house the toilet. The above is one of the older ones in the village, built entirely from wood. Later houses, like the one we stayed in and the one below in mid-construction, are built of  concrete shaped to a wood frame – the concrete replaces the traditional mix of mud, cow-dung and straw.

And one of the new.

And one of the new.

The sharp ones among you may have noticed that chimneys are not much in evidence. Some houses do have them, but the traditional cook-houses were  reed thatch affairs  and open at the eaves. The consequent build up of  smoke at te level of the eaves is fine if you are of Nepalese height, but not, as I discovered, at dinner that night, European height.

And my closing thoughts? To Western eyes, the conditions I describe seem primitive and certainly, lives here are harder and more demanding than we are used to. There is little concept of holidays and leisure time, and children start to do work within the family from as young as five. And yet, over 80% of India’s 1.2 billion people live in rural villages like these, as do billions of others, world-wide. For all the undoubted sophistication of our lives, are not the lives of the people of Sillery closer to normal than ours? In which case, I think we have to ask what we  think life is for and what development – in any context – really means.

Namaste Nation

Not my pic, unfortunately - its just very difficult to hold the camera and namaste at the same time

Not my pic, unfortunately – its just very difficult to hold the camera and namaste at the same time

Like many Europeans, I think I first encountered “Namaste” in a Thai restaurant; in my case, somewhere in North London.  Even then, without even knowing its meaning or history (it can be traced back more than 4,000 years) it made me pause; momentarily stilled in my quest for culinary sensation and satisfaction.

Here in India, and especially in this hill region, I see or receive this greeting very frequently, virtually everywhere I go, and have learnt to use it myself as an alternative to my more usual “hello, how are you?”

Make the comparison –

When we say “hello”, in English, we are using a word derived from an anglo-saxon term which roughly means, ”Oi, you there”. It is a straightforward demand for attention which, coincidentally, starts with the name of a place we’d all prefer not to go . Of course, like me, you may suspect that you are already there and are looking for a way out).

Whereas “Namaste” carries a delightful spectrum of meanings. It can be delivered with full formality, bowing, hands pressed together, below the chin, but eyes always up; as you might be welcomed into someone’s home – or one handed, with a nod to an old friend, as you walk across the road. At its most basic, the expression means,”I see you”, an acknowledgement rather than a demand. At its most profound, it translates as “I greet the inner spiritual intelligence that you are”. (Where you are in that spectrum is sometimes, but not always, indicated by the positioning of the hands and the depth of the bow – the higher, the deeper, so to speak.

Any direct transposition of tradition between cultures is a tricky thing. There are many features of  Indian culture that are very attractive, but you can discover quite a lot of connected features that aren’t; the same is true of Western culture, too. But I wonder what we could do to to try and bring a bit more conscious acknowledgement of other human beings into our western ways, and what it might be like if we succeeded.

Butterfly discoveries

Boys being boys

Boys being boys

My second Sunday; I had been 17 days in Kalimpong, but realised that I hadn’t yet really paused for breath, certainly not for my soul – hardly enough for my body. So, with only my camera and a rather odd map, I set off into the town. The first part of the journey was my familiar walk to the office in town, but at this slower pace, I had the time to see and appreciate things a little more.

A roadside house, that I had passed many times but never quite saw

A roadside house, that I had passed many times but never quite saw

Who's the man with the funny eyes, mom?

Who’s the man with the funny eyes, mom?

A place of a thousand shopkeepers

A place of a thousand shopkeepers

Having wandered around a while and discovered that my favourite coffee bar was closed – more on that, another time –  I decided to seek out the Indo-Tibet Cultural Institute – perhaps, I thought, there might be a museum, or some interesting people to talk to.

Convinced, after walking a full hour, that I had lost my way, I stopped to ask a shopkeeper. He pointed me further along the road, so off I went. I didn’t find any Indo-Tibetan Institute (and still haven’t). Instead, I found myself walking into the grounds of a Gompa – a religious centre for the 6th Lepcha Lama.

Prayer flags around a new stupa at the entrace to the Gompa

Prayer flags around a new stupa at the entrace to the Gompa

wheels of prayers

wheels of prayer

After wandering around for a bit and finding no one about, I began to think it was all shut up, so I settled into a little of my own quiet time, gentled by the gathering atmosphere. But then, I spied a rather striking, dark butterfly. It flew in front of me and then away. I followed and was shortly greeted by this twelve year old girl –

The Lepcha Lama's grandaughter - a pupil at the High School wh wants to be a doctor.

The Lepcha Lama’s grandaughter – a pupil at the High School wh wants to be a doctor.

And so was led to the Lama’s shrine and meditation centre.

Inside the tiny shrine and meditation room - the Buddha flanked by more ancient gods

Inside the tiny shrine and meditation room – the Buddha flanked by more ancient gods

Though neither old, nor richly endowed, there was an undeniable sense of abiding peace and settlement – a place of continuing devotion as evidened by the new stupa. I spent a further and very worthwhile hour there, taking in the atmosphere and feeling myself settle more deeply than I had before on this trip.

The central temple of the Gompa - a traditional block design.

The central temple of the Gompa – a traditional block design.

5 urns ..... 6th lama.... wonderful thing detection.. wonder if I am right

5 urns ….. 6th lama…. wonderful thing detection.. wonder if I am right

Later, I was told that the Lepcha are one of the three original tribes that inhabited the Kalimpong district. They are not generally Buddhists, and the existence of a Lepcha Buddhist gompa near the town has come as a surprise to a number of my Nepalese friends. But that seems to be the way of these parts – many small communities, clans and families living close by one another; peaceful, self-contained; interacting and mixing, but remaining distinct – content to be and allow to be, together.

Mission update 2 – Smoke and mirrors?

School-children on the way home in Kalimpong

School-children on the way home in Kalimpong

I am at that stage where questions of purpose, value and sanity have risen – i.e. “What is the purpose of this?” “Just who is it benefiting?” and my personal favourite just at the moment, “Why me?”

Events that have prompted these questions include; the night-time chorus of two fighting cats and five stray dogs that tends to kick off hourly between 9.00 pm and 2.00am most nights; the alternating and intermittent supply of electricity typical of the area; a five day bout of flu, which has effortlessly segued into a chest infection. But most of all – the increasing evidence that this agricultural project that I described in Mission Update 1 is facing more challenges than a Ku Klux Klan man falling in love with Will-I-Am.

So, I ask myself, ”Is this all just a game of smoke and mirrors? In which case, who is fooling who?”

But it’s reassuring to know that I am not the only one wondering that – here is my long-time friend Frances’ comment from facebook –  “That’s quite a project, James. Is this your area of expertise? Is the climate and soil conducive to turning this into a viable commercial proposition…?” And a few others of my friends have also made comments like “interesting….” and “challenging…..” and “how long did you say you would be out there…… ?”

And just to rub it in, here are some pics from three of the other schools, showing the quality of the land, etc.

First up, we

First up, we……..?

Well, my idea would be.....?

Well, my idea would be…

Do you think someone livig there might help....

How about we ask in there?

A local expressing their opinion.

A local expressing their opinion.

Oh, and did I forget to tell you that the government officer from the local agricultural development department just told me that, whereas the report I read about this region being pretty fertile was true, this “region” that I had read about included the whole of the state of West Bengal, ignoring the truly calcium-boron-magnesium-nitrogen depleted soils of the uplands, which is, of course where I am….

And, of course, Frances has made another equally valid point – I personally have absolutely no knowledge or experience of farming, growing vegetables or testing soils. So,never mind the fun I am having, – isn’t my decision to volunteer for this job somewhere between irresponsible and insane?  As unlikely as it may seem, I think the answer is going to turn out to be “yes”.

Two of the schools have kept up a good attempt at a subsistence garden for about three years, which means they  know to do the basic stuff. Three more have found land of better quality to start with. A Japanese agricultural team has offered to include the school teams in a 5 day intensive education course. That government guy I just told you about has just confirmed he is free to take the teams on a one day focused workshop for our specific crops and greenhouses. And then there is the discovery that an expert on soil fertility and diseases, who advises the Japanese team I just mentioned, is the brother-in-law of the best friend of the head-master of one of the schools – And he is sitting right next to me in the store run by my host’s sister….

Now, I’d like to claim the credit for being a wonderful researcher to put all this together, but mostly that just comes from a well-developed ability to ask stupid, obvious questions and keep asking until I get to better ones. Plus, I have found that if combine confidence and persistence it’s amazing what you can achieve. But all of this would be as nothing but for working with people whose essential nature is open and helpful (and patient, too, as you may imagine) and believe that there is a new future waiting to be won.

Which brings me back to the first two of my opening questions….

Children at Alpha school

Children at Alpha school

Through the rails

Through the rails

Teachers at Alpha

Teachers at Alpha

Mission update 1

Two days in, I finally met my project – the reason why I am here in northern India – up close and personal, so to speak. I had received plenty of information before making the journey here,  but now I was to see the existing project in operation.

It began with Jiwan Rai (the local manager of Mondo Challenge) and I walking up the hill into town to meet a group of the charity’s local trustees – we were all going to travel together to the village – them to a PTA meeting and me to meet the headmaster and talk about his fields. We all piled into a shared 4×4 taxi, but as we set off, I couldn’t help but be concerned – I had been told this was about a 10 mile trip there and back, and we were due to arrive at 12.30. So, why were we leaving at 10.15…..?

“Ah,” said I, about 40 minutes later, “The road”. I am sorry I don’t have any pictures, but this is because I spent most of the journey hanging on to the seat in front with both hands. Doing a hairpin turn on a 1:5 slope with a 300m drop to your right is an interesting experience, even on a proper road. Large sections of this one are rough cobbled and all of it is unfenced. If the driver had tried to go any faster, I would have got out and walked.

One of the village houses - the prayer flags indicate a buddhist family

One of the village houses – the prayer flags indicate a buddhist family

Anyway, we eventually arrived in the village of Baranumber, a place of roughly 100 houses; the homes of workers on the local cinchona (quinine) plantations. Here, the people live on an income of some R4,000 per month (roughly $2.20 a day, plus whatever they can earn from a little farming on their half-acre plots. Half an acre may seem quite a lot, but it shrinks considerably when it’s made up of terracing that is 3m (10 foot) wide at best.

The view up-hill

The view up-hill, terraces to left and right

But here’s the thing. In the middle of this village, one above the other, are two schools – the privately run, fee paying school that I was visiting and a government-run free school. The government school isn’t just free of fees – the uniform, school books and even a midday meal are all free. Yet the government school has just three pupils; the private school has 72. This is because the disparity in standards is so great that the villagers will try to scrape together the R300 per month (plus uniform, etc) to send their child to the private school, rather than rely on the government one.

One of the children outside a classroom

One of the children outside a classroom

and one of the teachers

and one of the teachers

And that is what my project is about. The fees from the villagers are really not enough to sustain the headmaster and his six staff on a decent wage. And that means they have nothing to spend on maintenance or development, leaving them dependent on donations from the Mondo charity. Both the school masters and the charity want to take effective steps to end that dependency. My mission is to help turn an existing garden vegetable project designed for the children’s education into something that is commercially viable and financially robust.  While I continue to find my way into how to do that, here are some more pictures of what I saw on this first visit.

The headmaster of Alpha school - NB Rai

The headmaster of Alpha school – NB Rai

Parents at the PTA meeting

Parents at the PTA meeting

The school's terraced plots - a total of 650 sq ft. I guess that's why it's called Mondo "Challenge".

The school’s terraced plots – a total of 650 sq ft. I guess that’s why it’s called Mondo “Challenge”.

If you want to know more about the project, stay tuned, and/or look up the Mondo Challenge Foundation at www.mondochallengefoundation.org/trustees.html

A Sacred Space in the City of Birds

There is a place near the centre of New Delhi which defies the noise and heat of the modern city. It is known as the tomb of Humayun, but as well as a burial site, it is an inspired assay in sacred architecture and design.


And let me begin by telling you how I eventually went to this place, rather than the Taj Mahal.

Chandra Chawk_1You see, originally, I had set aside my first day in Delhi for some local sightseeing, before heading south to the Taj Mahal, as you do. It was only after an hour’s walk into the centre of Old Delhi and the market district, that I discovered all of the monuments and museums were closed, this being a Monday. Yes, I know that now.  So, Monday left me with sore feet and this one picture of rickshaw cyclists on the Chandi Chowk, and a curio – why does this city have so many birds?  Look around you in Delhi, and you will see the birds everywhere – true; many are the usual scavengers you find in any city, but not this many – no.

Anyway, come the Tuesday, my last full day in Delhi, I no longer felt like taking the two hour journey south to see the Taj Mahal. Following advice I got on the plane, I braved the Delhi traffic on an auto rickshaw and headed out to Humayun’s tomb.

The tomb is actually a complex of buildings that include some of the earliest surviving monuments of the Moghul period in India. The building at its centre, Humayun’s tomb is actually the resting place of around 140 of his family and descendants. It stands in the centre of a 15 acre formal garden, divided by narrow channels of water that feed a series of fountains.



As you might suspect from these pictures, the tomb is an early precursor to the Taj Mahal which lies 80 miles south at Agra. Like its more famous neighbour, it is a monument to love, but this time built by the wife, to honour her husband. All of this, of course, you may read in any decent guide-book or online. But what the guidebooks only vaguely refer to, if at all, is the basis of the building in ancient beliefs about life and its purposes.


The clues lie partly in the shape – the perfect surrounding squares and partly in the colours of the main building and its domes. And, of course, the numbers – 17 and 4; 72 and 5; 16, 4 and 1, amongst others.


But it wasn’t until I was trying to photograph this fountain that I put together the first of two things –

The surrounding wall, the central platform and the gardens are all set out in regular squares, north/south. But the crowning domes are set at an angle, thus

Hamuyun shape

This pattern represents a simple and ancient perception about life. Roughly translated, it says that body and soul are held together, not by food, but by the grace of the spirit of humanity that resides in our innermost being.

And then, I understood about the birds and how there had come to be so many in the city. The surrounding walls of the sanctuary are pierced by small openings – they were put there on purpose, as nesting sites for pigeons and green parrots so that they would always be in attendance. They are a constant reminder of another ancient idea that Islam holds very dear; unlike our bodies and histories, beautiful and arresting as they may be (and here represented by the gardens and the water courses), our minds are free to leave the earth and fly up into the realms of heaven and inspiration.


Kalimpong first impressions

The first couple of days here have been an avalanche of new and exciting experience; too much to yet make sense of, let alone write about – but here are a few pictures to give a sense of where I am and what the scenery looks like –

At the river's edge, on the way up to Kalimpong

At the river’s edge, on the way up to Kalimpong

My driver/guide/host - the indefatigable Jiwan

My driver, guide and patient host – the indefatigable Jiwan Rai

First morning view, down the mountain

First morning view, down the “hill”-side

Pretty by the roadside

Pretty by the roadside

A glimpse of Katchenjunga  after the mists have cleared.

A glimpse of Kanchenjunga after the mists have cleared.

More in the coming days about Kalimpong and the project and also the city of the birds.

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