Sunday 19 July 2015

It Never Rains, It Jaipurs

I've worked something out about myself. All this time, I've been talking about how much I love to travel. I talk about how great it is to go and meet new people and see amazing things and experience cultures I couldn't dream of. I've been self-diagnosing myself with a severe bout of travel bug for years now but I'm beginning to suspect that might be diagnosing the symptoms, not the condition itself. The disease I'm really carrying is a yearning for freedom. Travel, despite its own self-rewarding nature, is just an outlet for me to find my own unabridged freedom.


I'm not talking freedom in any traditional sense specifically. Rather, just a general disconnectedness from the constraints of day to day life. Looking back, my best moments overseas have nearly always been the quite moments of self-reflection, when I can find some time to physically and mentally pull myself away from the world and everyone in it for an hour. In these moments, one idea will seemingly always come to me without fail. It's an idea that most people would (and should) find alarming but I find the most liberating feeling in the world. "If I were to disappear right now, no body would know". Not in a 'could be another terrifying crime statistic' kind of way. More in a "there is nothing bigger in my life than this moment right now", kind of way.


It's the feeling that I have nowhere else to be tonight, no one else I should be with, nothing I need to be doing. I have no commitments here or at home to worry about. This singular moment, ensconced in my own consciousness and parked away alone atop an unassuming hotel rooftop, looking out over the sun setting on the Jaipur skyline, is the only thing in my life that matters right now. It's almost like an epiphany of enlightenment. It's a combination of the realisation of total purpose and the realisation that I don't have a purpose.


I didn't know if I'd get the chance to feel that rare moment of total freedom on this trip. I have work and university commitments back in Mumbai and I'm travelling with 15 other people. Perhaps it's because Mumbai has come to feel like home after three weeks, but going to a new city feels like I'm out away from home again.


By now the sun has finished setting on Jaipur. Other people are starting to come and join me on the rooftop and I'm aware that soon we need to organise dinner and tomorrow's itinerary and how to get back to the airport. I'm beginning to remember the report I have due for my NGO by Thursday and the fact I'll be on a plane home this time next week.


But for that moment I was totally alone, in a world that either didn't know or care where I was. I was nothing and that nothing is my everything.


Saturday 18 July 2015

Getting Agra-ssive

Last Saturday was a big day. Not only was it the 23rd anniversary of my escape from that wretched ovarian Bastille, it was the time I managed to visit four major Indian cities in a single day. This story could have a number of beginnings. It could be back in Sydney when we, as a group, collectively decided we had to visit the Taj Mahal while we were in India. It could start two weeks earlier when I bought my plane ticket to Agra. It could begin at 11pm Friday night, when we frantically gathered together to book everyone else's flights, find a hotel and arrange a driver for the next morning. I choose to start the adventure at 5am Saturday morning, climbing into the backseat of a Mumbai taxi and heading off to the airport.

I mention its a Mumbai cab because there are 5 people in the backseat

The flight to New Dehli was reasonably uneventful. Unsurprisingly for anyone who's (a) flown with me before and/or (b) seen me at 5am, I slept the entire way. In Dehli airport, we hired two drivers and two cars to drive the 12 of us the 3 hours south to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is located) then the 6 hours west to Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan.

View from the backseat of the car or possibly a boat on a Dehli highway

Aside from numerous games of i-spy, some questionable roadside samosas and Dehli highways that could have passed as canals in the monsoon rains, we made the advertised 3 hour trip from Dehli to Agra in around 5 hours, which our driver assured us was a good time. So far, my birthday had been primarily early starts, queasy stomachs and cabin fever but it was easy to forget all that when we made it to the Taj Mahal.


It might come as no surprise, but the Taj Mahal came pretty highly recommended. I tried to approach it with an open mind but placing something on the 'Seven Wonders of the Modern World' list does tend to heighten expectations. That's why it was such a surprise to walk through the dark archway that separates the outside world from the grounds of the Taj Mahal complex and feel my jaw completely drop away. It's a bloody impressive building, is what I'm saying.


The Taj Mahal was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shan Jahan in 1632 as a mausoleum for his third and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It was finished in 1653 with a modern day cost of an estimated $1billion dollars. 20,000 workers were employed to create the white marble masterpiece. With those details out of the way, here are some photos. Oh, we all also decided to don Indian garb because, hey, why not?

Oh yeah, it rained at one point too.

Roomie picture

I guess the Taj isn't everybody's cup of tea

After it began to get dark at the Taj, we piled back into the cars for the long trip to Jaipur. Again, I'd like to say it was an eventful trip but... I can't think of a way to finish this sentence. The standout point of the trip was at about midnight, when we crossed into the state of Rajasthan, when our driver was pulled over by the police. It would be very rude of me to speak disparagingly of the integrity of Indian police. Indeed, they were quite thorough in informing our driver that his drivers license was expired. Fortunately, after a donation of a few hundred Rupees, he was fine to drive on. The strangest thing was that our driver showed me his license afterwards, which clearly says that it expires in 2018. Oh India, you so crazy!


Anyways, we arrived in Jaipur about 1am. Not too much personal reflection of philosophical insight this time, basically just a recount. I'm going to break up the story here, so tune in at the same time next week for the continuing adventures of yours truly in India.

"Damn white people and their selfies"


Ps. I'm just saving all the little Mumbai stuff up for one long post. It's easier and saves me thinking of increasingly obscure Mumbai-themed blog post puns.


Friday 17 July 2015

Jai Vakeel

For our work at the Centre for the Advancement of Philanthropy (CAP), Madison and I were given the opportunity to look around the Jai Vakeel School for the Intellectually Challenged. I'll post more about my time India when I get a chance to stop and write it.


They say a society should be judged by the way it treats those whom it doesn't need to treat well. The plight of the poor, the disenfranchised, the elderly and the disabled are too often overlooked for no reason other than they simply make the rest of us feel uncomfortable. Nobody intentionally turns their back on another person simply because we feel they aren't worthy of our support. We ignore them because they remind us of our own mortality or how lucky we truly are to have our health and food to eat. Society so often ignores the needs of the disabled for no reason beyond that it would make us all feel somewhat awkward and uncomfortable to be confronted with the fact that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. We limit involvement with them, worried that the experience will be a depressing one. We look the other way when we see them on the street because we fear what we might see or feel if we make eye contact. We, on some sub-conscious level, dehumanise them to justify our discomfort. What does that say about our society?

If I may say so myself, I consider myself to be a fairly accepting and tolerant person. I've been around people with disabilities before and, at least on a conscious level, I have no issues interacting with the handicapped. I would be lying, however, to say that I wasn't a little uncomfortable walking into the Jai Vakeel School for the Intellectually Disabled today. I felt the same apprehensions that I'm sure so many people would feel. How disabled are the children? Will I be able to interact with them? Will I leave feeling sad and sorry for them? I was afraid of being too confronted by what I saw.

The Jai Vakeel school is one of the largest and oldest not-for-profit organisations in Mumbai, dedicated to supporting the welfare and education of over 700+ intellectually disabled students with a variety of afflictions. A lot of the students have autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy or some other disability and many of the students have a combination of multiple issues. Jai Vakeel takes in disabled children, often from poor or disenfranchised backgrounds, and teaches them to become their very best, whatever that may be.

Jai Vakeel runs special education programs, designed to teach to the intellectual capacity of the students. Lessons range from simply developing the skills needed to pass a ball between classmates right through to a traditional classroom environment, where students are taught the same curriculum they might receive at any other school at a pace tailored to each individual. For some students, gaining the life skills to feed, wash and dress themselves might be the extent of what they learn. Others will leave with at least some high school education and make their own way in the world. Others still may stay on at the Institute, working in one of the many vocational centres.

These students do not simply cease to become students at a certain age, as in most schools. Jai Vakeel does not turn away any student who needs help and they do not evict any student who isn't ready to face the outside world. The youngest student at Jai Vakeel is 6 months but the oldest is 74. Many live at home with their parents while some live at the institute full time.

Jai Vakeel operates a number of programmes for students to learn a skill or trade that will help them either to find employment in the real world, or simply allow them to stay with the institute and do their part to earn their keep. In a tour of the Jai Vakeel school, I saw students making candles, food preserves, jewellery, incense sticks, gift bags, flower arrangements, envelopes and operating a range of industrial weaving machines, among many other trades.

These are not helpless individuals. One of the slogans for Jai Vakeel is “Do not look at their disabilities. Lets build on their abilities”, which I'll admit sounds a little corny but is incredibly true. It's easy to discount someone when their most noteworthy ability is the capacity to feed and dress themselves but that doesn't tell the whole story. It doesn't mention the tireless work of the staff and volunteers of Jai Vakeel who helped them reach that point and it doesn't tell of the hundreds of tries and years of practice it took them to learn how to use a spoon. Have you ever worked that hard at learning anything in your entire life?

I think the thing that caught me most by surprise, however, was the fact that everybody I saw in Jai Vakeel seemed so happy just to be there. There was a smile on the face of nearly every student. The students love being there because they are kept busy and challenged and they receive the support and care they need that they simply wouldn't be able to get anywhere else. Not only was a tour of Jai Vakeel not the depressing experience I feared, it was positively uplifting. Jai Vakeel is not the only organisation that cares for disabled students in the world. It's probably not even the only organisation that cares for disabled students in Mumbai. I'm not telling anyone to go volunteer at a school like it or to donate to the school (although you definitely can if you want). If you take only one thing from reading this, take this. Our society is at a point where we can no longer justify averting our eyes when we see a disabled person on the street. The first step is to acknowledge that and to stop dehumanising our most vulnerable people.


Wednesday 1 July 2015

I've Got Good News Aurangabad News

It's just past 12:30am and I am on the strangest train journey of my life. As I write this, I am perched precariously at the end of a single-width, thin, vinyl mattress which is hanging from the ceiling of an exceedingly noisy, constantly swaying train car. The mattress is the top level of a triple bunk bed set-up and, although its designed for one person, it's currently holding three. In all likelihood, I'll be balanced up here in my cramped erie for another six or seven hours. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Indian railway system.


In the last post, I mentioned that we had bought tickets to the city of Aurangabad for a scenic weekend getaway. Eagle-eyed readers may also remember that despite the cavalcade of hoops we we required to jump through to buy the tickets, we only managed to get six of the ten tickets we needed for the return journey. As I've mentioned before, the national motto of India is "there's always room one more!", so naturally the advice from the woman at the train station was to just pay for ten tickets and just cram into the six remaining beds. We listened, of course. Anyway, I'll get to all this later. I have all the time in the world...


Aurangabad came highly recommended to us from a number of people. The city itself is a fairly minor one, seven hours East of Mumbai by train. The main attractions in Aurangabad are the two ancient cave complexes of Ajanta and Ellora and the Daulatabad Fort, which the locals just call 'Fort'.


We arrived at CST Station (the main central station in Mumbai) at 5am Saturday morning for our 6am train because we had been warned that even having a ticket was no guarantee of getting a seat and that we would be better off just getting there early. Anyone who knows me will appreciate the significance of me being anywhere at 5am. The first surprise was the insane number of homeless people who sleep and live at the station. Row after row after row of thin, underfed men, women, and children were sleeping on the cold tiles, usually with nothing more than a ragged towel to use as a mattress if they were lucky. On the platform near where our train was waiting, a mother and the smallest, skinniest baby I've ever seen were sleeping on a sheet on the hard ground. In the child's case, the sheet also doubled as a diaper.


The train was exactly as packed as you might imagine it to be. Although the ten of us managed to claim our seats, the carriage soon filled up to the point of bursting. There were men and women standing in every spare centimeter of aisle, there were women and children sitting on the floor between our legs and there were children riding in both the overhead luggage shelf and on our laps. Although there was no one riding on the outside of the train (that we saw), there were people hanging out the open train doors and one of the locals we spoke to on the train said it was just a normal day and thankfully it wasn't too busy.


All that being said, the trip was long but not unbearable and we survived the trip. I mention we survived the trip because, on average, nine people die on the train network in this state alone every day. Additionally, the 4:30am start had left no time for breakfast, which meant that buying a dodgy samosa from the man walking up and down the train yelling "SAMOSEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!" at the top of his voice was non-negotiable. Some might call this living dangerously, given the state of the train toilets, but everything was cool. We arrived in Aurangabad and found a hotel room without much difficulty. Most of the hotels were full and one had only one room left so we decided to really double-down on the whole 'when in India' thing and decided to sleep all ten of us in one room together.


It was good to see a bit of Aurangabad. Since its not a large city like Mumbai, it felt a lot more like the real India. The air was clear and fresh and for the first time, we actually saw blue skies. Although it was hotter than Mumbai, it was also a dry heat and not humid. It was really a world away from Mumbai.


Since it was already mid-afternoon, we luncheoned in a small restaurant attached to the hotel for a set of all-round average meals. The high/low point was the difficulty in reaching a consensus on what constituted a cheese sandwich. After the third attempt resulted in a plate with a few slices of bread and half a block of cheese grated on top of it, we decided to cut our loses. The caves were all some distance away and closed early so we decided to hire tuk-tuks to take us to check out Daulatabad Fort.

Not everyone enjoyed haggling over the price

As of right now, I still am not entirely clear on who exactly built the fort, when or why as virtually no information was given (even in the information book which we actually paid money for). I believe it was primarily the work of the Mughals, but I can't be sure. Whoever built it, they did a good job. It was a rather impressive set of ruins, complete with shrines, temples, defenses, waterworks, towers and subterranean tunnels. Although the ruins continued to the top of the mountain, access to the public was only allowed to a certain point. Madison and I attempted to explore to the bottom of the tunnels but the smell of the guano (bat poo) literally made our eyes water and breathing virtually impossible. I'll just let the pictures do the talking, since I don't really know too much more about the Daulatabad Fort.


That night we decided to check out the fine dining restaurant attached to the relatively fancy hotel across the street from out hotel room (singular). I don't recall the last time I laughed as hard as I think I did that whole meal. I'm fairly sure the waiters all thought we were drunk but I think it was just a heady mixture of exhaustion and spicy food. That night, however, was a less than comfortable affair. Squeezing ten people into a hotel room with a tile floor ended up being as comfortable as you would expect, despite the three incredibly thin additional mattresses the hotel provided, as well as three supplementary blankets and two additional pillows.


Fortunately, the generally poor sleep made our 6am start a little more tolerable. The Ajanta and Ellora caves are two hours and half-an-hour outside of Aurangabad respectively. We hired a nine-seater taxi to drive the ten of us to the caves and back, because personal boundaries have clearly become a thing of the past. Again, information on the ground was pretty scarce about the actual caves themselves so I might just include a bunch of pictures.


The Ajanta caves were carved into an enormous horse-shoe valley between the 1st and 4th centuries. There are more than thirty man-made caves carved into the cliff face, all of them ornately decorated, most of which seemed to serve as shrines and temples to both Buddha and the Hindu Gods.


Ellora caves were larger but fewer. There were a few large temples carved into the rock but the main attraction was the enormous temple complex which was carved out of one enormous slab of rock. Again, no info, just photos. I'm writing this on the train so I can't even research these places and pretend I actually knew anything about them. It reminded me of Angkor Wat.


Which brings me to how I ended up cramped on a top bunk, sore and bent everywhere, at what is now 5am. As I mentioned, the Indian rail network is somewhat infamous. One of these reasons for infamy is a general lack of safety for any vulnerable persons, which can include white people and females. Given that all of our group falls into at least one of those categories, and the fact we are clearly in possession of valuable money and goods which we can't watch effectively whilst asleep, there was a general feeling of mistrust and suspicion in the minds of some members of our party. Unfortunately, this feeling of mistrust began to manifest itself into condescending, confrontational and downright offensive interrogations of all the other passengers and accusations of sexual deviancy in regards to specific passengers which were pointed out. All of these passengers speak English and could hear what was being said. We're all tired, overwhelmed and these fears aren't totally groundless so I can understand the issues, however, we began to cause quite a commotion in the cabin which was already full of +100 sleeping people. To try and head things off at the pass, I felt it would be best to set everyone's minds at ease if someone were to keep watch while the others slept.


Anyway, it's 10am now, I've been awake for about 28 hours. I'm home (strange how Mumbai is already home), showered and in bed. We took a holiday from our holiday in Mumbai, but I think we all need a holiday from that now.

Vegemite parathra - Indian Australian fusion